How Early Forms of Existentialism Influenced Phenomenology

 In History of Phenomenology

Before I get to this week’s post, I want to introduce the series, which is on Nineteenth Century movements that influenced phenomenology.  There were interesting and influential innovations in thought that started in the mid to late Nineteenth Century.  Science was becoming perhaps the most powerful force in the world since it lent global military and economic advantage and consequential power hegemony to the countries in Northwestern Europe.  Some thinkers sought to harness the power of science to understand the mind, which led to the establishment of psychology as a scientific discipline.  There were also attempts to understand culture and society through innovations in interpretive methods and practices.  There were also reactions against the ever-powerful scientific and rationalist framework that most academics had subscribed to.  In the next three posts, including this one, I will cover schools of thought from the mid to late Nineteenth Century that had important influences on the foundation of the fully formed phenomenology that came about in the early Twentieth Century.

How Early Forms of Existentialism Influenced Phenomenology

In the mid Nineteenth Century, some thinkers saw the systemic and academic work of philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, in both style and content, as impenetrably dense, overly theoretical, and disconnected from concrete human experience.  We can trace similar sentiment back to the birth of Romanticism in the Eighteenth Century with the work of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who sought to find authentic life in a supposedly more natural state of human life that would be free from the corrupt influences of private property and the modern world’s ubiquitous desire for maximization of material wealth.  Schopenhauer’s Romanticism tried to maintain academic rigor while also getting to the heart of the driving impulses shared across all people.  In this, he did have some limited success in connecting philosophical ideas into the passionate lived experience of common people.  This approach did resonate with some people and it served as inspiration for Nineteenth Century existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, who felt the need to explore much more independent ways of thinking, living, and communicating than anything that was coming out of the academic milieu of their time.

Existentialism is a tradition of philosophical enquiry whose primary focus is on the meaning and purpose of existence, especially of the acting, feeling, and living human individual.  The works in this genre involve the author contemplating their own meaning, but they don’t do this in a way that preaches to the reader.  Instead, the reader is encouraged to consider this for their own self.  In response to the question “what can we know?”, an existentialist might answer that we can know the human condition, and they might say that we can know this through intuitive insight resulting from experiencing feelings such as anguish.  In the view of the existentialist, the individual’s starting point might be the feeling of existential angst, dread, disorientation, or confusion as they contemplate the apparently meaningless or absurd world.  Existentialist works often involve the exposition of a broad range of human emotions that manifest in the context of various lived experiences, and this interaction often plays a central role in examining the question of the meaning and purpose of existence.  What is common to existentialists is the centrality of self-examination and the need for authenticity in life.

Existentialism emphasized the fragility of reason, the contingency of existence, and the need for human beings to create their own essence to determine the meaning of their own lives.  Existentialists believe that the only satisfactory way to find meaning is through free and resolute action rather than through cold and calculated observation and reason.  The reader is encouraged to personally try different things and to see what works for them and the author gives a guide for what has worked for their own self and for other people that they personally know.  These stories and meditations and explorations are offered to the reader as potential guides for their own personal exploration of the meaning and purpose of their own life.

For Kierkegaard, the meaning of existence is found in faith, whereas for Nietzsche, it is found in one’s personal will to self-determination.  Kierkegaard wanted a subjective approach to philosophy.  He wanted to examine what it means to be a human being, not as a part of some grand philosophical system, but as a self-determining individual.  He studied the experience of dread and anxiety, especially as they might be presented within one’s moral choices.  Nietzsche sought to radically redefine the traditional notions of culture, values, identity, and purpose.  In all cases, existentialism involves mindfulness of one’s emotions and being the author of one’s own purpose and destiny.

All of this had an important influence on the development of existential phenomenology, which essentially merges the core of phenomenology (a disciplined approach to self-examination of the structures of consciousness and getting back to ‘the things themselves’) with existentialism.  When Edmund Husserl first formulated phenomenology, his focus was mostly on how our thoughts and conceptions of reality are constituted so that we don’t have to be beholden to overarching ideological or metaphysical assumptions and we can instead come to recognize a ground of conscious experience that is known from direct experience.  Husserl had a method of doing this that is meditative and mostly up in the head, but Martin Heidegger and his successors created an existential way of doing phenomenology was more embodied and that could allow one to find a basis in being that is even more fundamental than what Husserl had identified.

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