Proto-Phenomenology in the Ancient and Medieval Western World

 In History of Phenomenology

Phenomenology is usually considered to have begun in the early Twentieth Century with the work of Edmund Husserl, but the central ideas had already been in development by earlier thinkers.  Meditative practices and intersubjective philosophical discourse can perhaps be seen as proto-phenomenology, and these are as old as recorded human history.  Indeed, we find much of this in ancient Greece, India, and China, and we have evidence that these early schools of thought did influence the development of mature phenomenology.  Just as there was some degree of physical and biological protoscience in these ancient and medieval times and places, likewise there were very early developments in intersubjective inquiry in Eastern and Western philosophy that we can recognize as relying on similar lines of reasoning as we currently use as we seek to understand the structures of consciousness.  The following subsections will broadly cover proto-phenomenology as it developed in different regions of the world through ancient, medieval, and early modern times.

Proto-phenomenological lines of reasoning might be as old as language itself, but our records would only go back as far as recorded philosophical works that made their way down to us.  The earliest examples that we can find of self-reflective thought come from inscriptions on temples from ancient Egypt that essentially say “know thyself”, which is one of the simplest and most famous maxims in all of philosophy.  A few isolated inscriptions notwithstanding, Western philosophy is usually understood to have originated with the ancient Greeks, and indeed we can find some proto-phenomenology in some of the most influential works of this period.  These philosophers applied their thought, inquiry, and discourse to all aspects of life and to everything that they encountered.  They analyzed a broad diversity of subjects, including the natural world, the heavenly bodies, living things, logic, rhetoric, ethics, fundamental causes, and the nature of being itself.  As they were thinking, conscious beings, it is quite natural that they would also have turned their inquiry inward, so as to try to understand the essential structures of consciousness itself.  And as they were a part of communities of people who had inner feelings, interests, and needs, it is natural that their discourse would have attempted to develop and refine their understanding of the inner experiences of their interlocutors and how all of this relates to the natural world in which they lived.

Plato and Aristotle are the two giants of ancient Greek philosophy because of their prolific and extremely influential works on a wide variety of topics.  If we look carefully then we can find examples of proto-phenomenology in their works.  Several commentators have compiled comprehensive overviews of Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophy and we can start with a certain consensus interpretation for this assessment.   Although the examples of proto-phenomenology in these works are admittedly rather scarce, the fact that we do find examples of introspection and intersubjectivity in the works of the most influential classical writers gives more weight to the notion that such lines of reasoning are at least as old as classical philosophy.

On the face, Plato’s worldview is quite antithetical to empiricism.  At times he seems rather confused regarding the relation between sense perception and knowledge, wishing to acknowledge that things in nature are constantly in a state of flux and that language is inherently imperfect and that perception is not reality because the mind must reflect on impressions to attempt to apprehend existence.  At times he seems to say that all knowledge is remembrance of things previously known and at times it seems he allows some form of knowledge from perception indirectly, but on this point he is inconclusive.  There are instances where he seems to allow that firsthand experience leads to new knowledge, such as in his famous analogy involving the prisoners in the cave who can see only shadows, wherein one of them escapes and is then able to experience the broader world for the first time.  In regard to knowledge of abstractions, he says that comparison, understanding of number, and knowledge of existence are essential to any more concrete knowledge and he acknowledges that such universal knowledge could not come from perception through any sense organ.  One interpretation of Plato is that he is arguing that such knowledge is understood to come to mind as a result of some inner experience(s) such as introspection and reflection.  If so, then this could perhaps be an example of proto-phenomenological thinking.

Aristotle’s work is partially reliant on empiricism and also includes much metaphysical analysis and speculation in a haphazard sort of manner that can now be considered a type of protoscience.  His work On the Soul is a prominent example of this, as it includes theories regarding the causes of biological and psychological phenomena.  Since these theories are partially based on psychological self-descriptions, we can also consider this work to include some proto-phenomenology.  The analysis of the categories of being given in Aristotle’s Metaphysics can be interpreted as an analysis of the essential building blocks of thought and how these can correspond to philosophical logic.  If so, then this would certainly be another example of attempts to build and refine intersubjective knowledge in Aristotle’s work.  In addition, his Nicomachean Ethics can be seen as having proto-phenomenological underpinnings because the ethical theory given therein depends upon the connection between first-person experience and moral judgments, since one would have to know their own emotions in order to be able to judge how these play into the doctrine of the golden mean.

We can likewise find examples of proto-phenomenological thinking in slightly later Greek language works from classical antiquity.  Euclid’s geometric axioms are fundamental to everything given within the Elements and these were not themselves derived logically but instead they were given and justified on the grounds of personal experience.  And so the implication is that one has intuitive understanding of these axioms on the basis of their own intuitive understanding, which can be seen as being derived from the structures of first-person conscious experience that is common to all.

A central element taught by ancient Stoic philosophers is to understand one’s own emotions so that they can be controlled.  In general, the Stoics taught that the path to happiness can be found when one accepts each moment as it presents itself and by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure nor the fear of pain.  They key is to use one’s mind to understand nature and to live in harmony with it and to cooperate with others to maintain fairness and justice.  The philosophy of Stoicism teaches people to calmly survey their own emotional landscape and to develop emotional intelligence so that they can find ways of acting more rationally.  As Marcus Aurelius said, “These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest…It succeeds in its own purpose…”.  We can recognize any effort to develop emotional intelligence as being in the realm of intersubjectivity.

Medieval Islamic philosophy also featured many examples of intersubjective thinking.  The geographical extent of the term “Western world” sometimes varies based on the context.  Herein, this term is understood to include the Middle East and all philosophy that was a product of the Islamic civilization.  If we consider the culture and philosophy of the classical Islamic civilization, there is no doubt that it is heavily inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, and the influences from ancient Indian or Chinese philosophy is far less significant or even unnoticeable.  Thus, as far as the development of philosophy goes, the Islamic civilization is considered Western.

The most influential Islamic philosophers of Medieval times were Avicenna and Averroes, both of whom were very heavily influenced by Aristotle and who were both known for interpreting and expanding on earlier works.  As with Aristotle, some of the work of these philosophers can be seen as proto-phenomenological.  For example, Avicenna came up with a thought experiment that involves imagining one’s self outside of one’s body and still having self-consciousness.  This is a certain way of going about proto-phenomenology that is a sort of precursor to Descartes’ cogito.  Averroes took Aristotle’s On the Soul and further emphasized the psychology of it, giving more firsthand experiential accounts and descriptions of thoughts and feelings that can be seen as further attempts to develop intersubjective knowledge.

In the Sufi variant of Islamic thought, there were writers such as Rumi who came up with a theory of the stages of moral and intellectual development.  This includes: 1) the commanding self, 2) the regretful self, 3) the inspired self, 4) the contented self, 5) the pleased self, 6) the self pleasing to God, 7) the pure self.  Within this system, at level 3 one is able to begin to introspect just a very little and in the later stages this happens more and more, and a greater reality can be understood.  This can perhaps be seen as a precursor to aspects of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, specifically to the transcendental reduction and to introspection and reflection.

In Medieval Europe, Scholastic philosophy was derived largely from the works of Plato and Aristotle and was heavily based on the interpretation and commentary of the Islamic philosophers that immediately preceded it.  In many ways, Scholastic philosophy was conservative and did not break much new ground.  Certainly, in the realm of proto-phenomenology, this era of Western philosophical development was less innovative than those that had come before it, but there were some advancements from among the Scholastics that proved influential in more recent times.  Notably, they are credited with coming up with the notion of intentionality, which is one’s mental disposition towards something.  Since intentionality involves the relation between the conscious mind and external reality, this analysis can be seen as an example of proto-phenomenology.

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