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Phenomenology Prior to the Twentieth Century


Permalink 11:09:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 554 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

Phenomenology Prior to the Twentieth Century

Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about the relationship between science and phenomenology. This post is the first in a series that explores the history of phenomenology.

Just to recap, phenomenology is a branch of philosophy that involves the first person study of conscious experience. Those who practice phenomenology attempt to create an intersubjective understanding of the structures of consciousness. This is not the same as studying consciousness objectively, which is in the domain of science. It seems that there are aspects of conscious experience that are quite real but cannot be known objectively and are not in the domain of science. If it is possible to deal with these matters intersubjectively, then they are in the domain of phenomenology.

The central theme of phenomenology is that through focused introspection and reflection, one can come to understand consciousness as it really is. One who practices phenomenology pays close attention to immediate appearances of perceptions, imaginations, memories, feelings, and the like and from this they are supposed to be able to better understand reality. The phenomenologist then explains their experiences and conclusions to others with as much detail as possible with the goal of allowing others to understand these findings and to come to agreements, thus creating intersubjectivity.

Based on this general definition, there have been many versions of phenomenology throughout history, though this term only dates back to the Seventeenth Century. The earliest versions of what can now be called phenomenology comes from Taoist and Buddhist works from many centuries ago. Notably, some of Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi's work and Buddhist schools such as Zen and Yogacara have certain similarities to 20th century western phenomenology in that they often involve the first-person study of consciousness. Most Eastern phenomenology is based on certain metaphysical presuppositions, such as Gautama Buddha's contention that that there is no enduring self.

More recently, Enlightenment era thinkers including Rene Descartes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and others practiced their own forms of phenomenology. Each of these philosophers described their conscious experience to some extent in their works and mixed these descriptions with their reasoned arguments for epistemology and metaphysics, which are unrelated to anything that can be called phenomenology. These thinkers did touch on phenomenology, but they did not emphasize their first-person descriptions of consciousness as much as the 20th century phenomenologists did. German idealist Georg Hegel put forth a rather whimsical version of phenomenology that influenced various formulations of idealism in the Nineteenth Century.

While all of these meet the broad definition of phenomenology outlined above, none were very systematic or methodical about this. In general, though there were many works of philosophy prior to the Twentieth Century that involved some phenomenology as so defined, these works did not come with detailed procedures for how readers could also attempt to go through similar phenomenological processes and from this to create intersubjectivity. As such, even the best of these works only had limited phenomenological value.

In the early Twentieth Century, Edmund Husserl formulated a version of phenomenology that was far more organized and detailed than any that had existed up to that point. Husserl wrote several books and gave numerous lectures explaining this new method. Husserl's work is the subject of the next installment of this series on the history of phenomenology, which will probably be published two weeks from now.


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