Proto-Phenomenology in the Early Modern Western Tradition

 In History of Phenomenology

This post continues the series on the historical development of proto-phenomenology and intersubjective thought and methodology from ancient times to the present.  You might want to start with the post on proto-phenomenology in the ancient and medieval Western world if you haven’t already.

Starting in the Seventeenth Century, the development of Western Civilization started accelerating with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.  There were many factors that were rapidly changing society and the major thinkers of this era attempted to break free from ancient and medieval belief systems that had become stale and sterile.  New ways of thinking were being developed, and this included the focus on observation and analysis of the mind and of mental processes, often from a first-person point of view.  Some of the most significant thinkers of this era engaged in proto-phenomenological thinking, analysis, and discourse so as to better understand the nature of consciousness and the foundations of knowledge itself.

Some commentators have argued that Galileo, one of the fathers of modern science, also had proto-phenomenological lines of reasoning in his work.  Galileo gave reasons for why science should only be concerned with phenomena that are objectively measurable, such as the size, shape, location, and motion of objects, and subsequent scientific research has largely followed the broad framework that he outlined.  His work also included some descriptions of his inner world, which served to help readers in following his line of reasoning and also as a first step to identifying the things within our inner world, things that we experience regularly, that are also a part of the outer world because they can be objectively measured, explained, predicted, and controlled through replicable experiments.  It was necessary for him to first set the scene with his first person descriptions, which included some things that his audience can easily relate to, in order to then focus on a narrower scope of things that are quantifiable and that can be studied scientifically.  His descriptions of the inner world and its relation to the outer world were useful for some people who were trying to understand the scientific method.

Rene Descartes is one who was questioning the foundation of knowledge and how it is possible that he could know anything with utter certainty.  As detailed in his Meditations, he realized that he could doubt nearly everything.  Indeed, he could doubt the existence of the physical world in its entirety.  When he began to introspect, this is where he found something that he could not doubt: that he was thinking.  He realized that if he tried to doubt that he was thinking that this very act of doubting would then be another thought and so he realized that he had absolute certainty of some of the events that were occurring within his own mind.  He then used this foundational knowledge to realize that he exists, since there must be a thing that does the thinking, and that this thing is himself.  This led him to the famous dictum cogito ergo sum, which means “I think, therefore I am”.  Descartes’ line of reasoning that led to the cogito has been criticized by many, and indeed there are many questions of selfhood and personal identity that he takes for granted and that deserve to be analyzed on their own terms, but it is very significant that he realized that he could have utter certainty of something that he is clearly and directly experiencing within his own mind.  There are undoubtedly similarities between Descartes’ work and some schools of Eastern philosophy, notably the process of meditation that begins with universal skepticism and then involves the use of introspection so as to achieve a clear realization of the self.  Although the evidence of a causal link between the two is scant, it is interesting to speculate that he might somehow have been influenced by Yogic or Daoist or Buddhist philosophy.

As the scientific revolution was underway, people began to more seriously consider the differences between reality and appearances.  These sort of questions can only be adequately addressed through a careful consideration of what bits of knowledge might be objective vs. subjective, the latter of which can often become intersubjective knowledge when scientifically and philosophically minded people discuss these matters and come to a better understanding of the relation between conscious experience and the external world.  John Locke was one of the first of this era to emphasize the question of reality vs. appearance.  He hypothesized a conceptual distinction between primary and secondary qualities, in which the primary are properties of objects that are independent of any observer, such as solidity, extension, motion, number and figure, while the secondary are properties that produce sensations in observers, such as color, taste, smell, and sound.  And so we can see that Locke’s primary/secondary distinction is largely analogous to the objective/intersubjective distinction.  For Locke to make a judgment as to which qualities are primary or secondary, he had to rely in part on reflections of his own conscious experience and then to generalize his findings so as to produce hypotheses with regards to how the mind works.  In continuation of this proto-phenomenology, his hypotheses were then analyzed and scrutinized by successors including George Berkeley and David Hume, who then underwent their own explorations and formulated alternative hypotheses regarding the relation between reality and appearances.  Berkeley provided thought experiments that involve empirical analysis and that rely on descriptions of phenomena (sensory data) and how the supposed objects that we tend to think of as external to consciousness inevitably are constantly changing and are entirely relative to our minds.  Likewise, Hume analyzed empirical data and sensory data, but he came to more skeptical conclusions as to our ability to apprehend reality through our senses, given what he saw as the inherent limitations of our minds.

Immanuel Kant became familiar with some broadly diverse opinions regarding the relation between reality and appearances, some of which he found quite reasonable, and he sought to synthesize them into a more comprehensive worldview.  He began his career using the methodological framework of Gottfried Leibniz, which involved speculative metaphysics without much use of introspection and dressed up as systematic proofs, but Kant realized the inherent dogmatism in such approaches.  Instead, Kant’s methodology is partially based on the logical analysis of the experiential terms we commonly use (like time, space, order, unity, manifold, dream, apprehension, rule-governed, representation, temporal, succession, synthesized, imagination, produced, reproduce, enduring, identity, etc.) and trying to figure out, in complex and often disjointed detail, what things must exist in order to facilitate our experiences as such.  He asked his audience to consider what are the necessary conditions for these types of experiences, including the ability to perceive and to conceptualize things.  Kant formulated a novel solution to these related questions, which is known as transcendental idealism.  This is the hypothesis that we only have access to our immediate experiences (the phenomena), and the reality that lies outside of our consciousness (the noumenon) is not knowable.  Kant figured 1) that we have innate structures in our minds that determine our experience of time, space, substance, causality, and necessity and 2) that somehow these interact with any noumenon that might exist external to our minds and 3) that the product of this interaction is our immediate experience.  Kant argued that this experience is all we will ever know and that we will not be able to know the nature of the noumenon with regards to time nor space nor causality, etc.

It was in Kant’s time that the word “phenomenology” began to be commonly used in philosophical contexts, although it had a different meaning than the one Husserl and his successors would later assign to it.  According to A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism: “During the Nineteenth Century, the word denoted a descriptive as opposed to a hypothetical or analytic approach to a problem”.[i]  But there is similarity between these different senses, since in most cases one would not be able to adequately approach a problem descriptively unless they are describing raw data from immediate experience.  Kant’s immediate successors went back to relying heavily on metaphysical speculation and the construction of grand systems that were far outside of any possible first-person experience, and they would sometimes consider their own work to be phenomenological.  A prominent example of this is Phenomenology of Spirit by Georg Hegel, which puts forth a complex and rather whimsical system of absolute idealism, with associations to logic, historical analysis, sociology, and political science.  Hegel’s work is comprehensive, but his system of dialectical logic has been criticized as fundamentally illogical and most of his assertions are also lacking in any kind of empirical evidence.  Arthur Schopenhauer attempted to return to transcendental idealism, but his version equates the noumenon with a blind and insatiable metaphysical will.  Thus, he saw the phenomenal world that we directly experience as being a product of this will.  Schopenhauer’s work was speculative and not very phenomenological, but his emphasis on the will and on desires and insatiable drives did serve as food for thought for later generations of existentialist thinkers.

Each of these Early Modern Western philosophers found the need to describe their conscious experience to some extent in their works and they mixed these descriptions with their reasoned arguments for epistemology and metaphysics so as to formulate generalized hypotheses or theories that their readership could relate to.  These thinkers did practice forms of proto-phenomenology, but they did not emphasize their first-person descriptions of consciousness as much as the mature phenomenologists did, nor were they very systematic or methodical about this aspect of their work.

[i] Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism, p. 2.

Recent Posts