What is Transcendental Phenomenology?

 In History of Phenomenology

This post is the first in a series on the main branches of mature phenomenology.  In past posts, I argued that there was proto-phenomenology in the Eastern and Western philosophical traditions going all the way back to ancient times.  We can recognize probably four major branches of mature phenomenology.  Each of these evolved from a synthesis and outgrowth of the schools of thought that were developed in the late Nineteenth Century.  While there is some overlap between them, each of the four had their own unique origin and they each also had their own major proponents in the generations that followed their initial formulation.

Transcendental Phenomenology

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.  The biggest problem that he saw with the intellectual landscape of his time was that there were a few different mutual incompatible worldviews that were enjoying significant popular support, but they were each based on overarching assumptions and complex edifices of beliefs.  Especially with regard to the mind and what it is and how it works, there were widely diverse opinions floating around.

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 the mind was a material thing and that it is driven by natural laws and that anything we can think about or know must be understood within that framework.  The advocates of these frameworks tried to make their most convincing case for their way of conceptualizing the mind and reality, but Husserl saw that there was no universal way that one could sort out which of these was more correct than the others.

Husserl saw a way to sort this out by getting to the heart of how empiricism works and by focusing on the experiential side of things.  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 and leading up the present, 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.

There are, however, reasons to believe that science need not be restricted by positivist and material realist assumptions, as was already becoming the overarching assumption of most empiricists in the early Twentieth Century.  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 conventional empiricist roots.  He thought that the direct, first-person study of conscious experience could become a rigorous science and through this one could understand reality better than any based solely on the positivism of his day and also better than what was offered by the variations of idealism that were popular in his time.

His contention is that we should not start with any fundamental assumptions about the way the world is or how the mind works when we start our investigation.  We are looking for certainty here, and any of our foundational assumptions can be wrong and can lead us down the wrong path.  As such, we can set all of that aside and try to take experience as it is directly given, we can focus on the things themselves as they are presented to us in our conscious experience, and we can then to use that as the most certain thing that we know.  It is only after we have that understanding in place that we might be able to figure out a more reliable system that incorporates materialistic science.

Husserl developed a methodology for this process and called it phenomenology.  This word had been used prior to him, but he was the first to apply it to a specific method.  Though the word “phenomenology” was used by Kant and also Hegel, prior to Husserl the definition of this word was not clearly established.  Summaries of Husserl’s life and work often portray him as the inventor of phenomenology, but even if this word is defined quite narrowly, this assertion is highly debatable.  In this work, we are going with a broader definition of “phenomenology” that can be used as an umbrella term for any way of studying experience that relies heavily on introspection and/or other forms of conscious/mental information gathering with the aim of building intersubjective knowledge.

We can say that Husserl initiated, at least within the Western philosophical tradition, the first mature phenomenology wherein there isn’t supposed to be an overarching speculative assumption of some metaphysical system that is both entirely beyond firsthand experience and is not subject to possible revision on the basis of such experience.  Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel all did much of this with their complex metaphysical systems.  Within mature phenomenology, there also isn’t supposed to be an overarching assumption that everything is physical and that everything that we experience is to be explained in terms of this.  Lots of notable thinkers since ancient times have done that, starting with the Ancient Greek atomists, the Epicureans, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Auguste Comte, etc.  There can, however, be times where a philosopher does describe their experience and their metaphysics might be understood to be constructed from a generalization of what is going on.  All phenomenologists do this.  The key to mature phenomenology, however, is that you shouldn’t speculate very much and what you do come up with should be reproducible through intersubjective reasoning and it should be refinable and open to alternate interpretations, which means that the entire edifice you construct could be torn down through subsequent investigation.

Certainly, phenomenology provides a different approach to studying consciousness than do the natural sciences that are based on objectivity and positivism.  Dermot Moran explained this difference and also how such sciences can be seen as complementary to phenomenology:

It is important to grasp the difference between the phenomenological approach and other kinds of scientific approach, for example, the psychological, physiological or causal-explanatory approaches prevalent in the natural sciences.  Husserl insisted on this point, but it still gives rise to endless confusion.  First of all, Husserl is emphatically not challenging the importance, necessity or validity of explanatory scientific accounts.  Investigations into the physical and chemical nature of the brain and its processing are a necessary part of science.  But that is not the function of a phenomenological description, which is a mode of approach that can be used in all areas of science, but which specifically focuses on the manner objects are constituted in and for subjects.  It focuses on the structure and qualities of objects and situations as they are experienced by the subject.[1]

Francisco Varela explained how Husserl saw the relationship between phenomenology and the natural science:

Husserl’s famous dictum: ‘Back to the things themselves!’ which for him meant – the opposite of a third-person objectification – a return to the world as it is experienced in its felt immediacy.  It was Husserl’s hope, and still the basic inspiration behind phenomenological research, that a true science of experience would be gradually established which could not only stand on equal footing to the natural sciences, but in fact would give them a needed ground, for all knowledge necessarily emerges from our lived experience.[2]

In other words, phenomenology cannot assume or utilize the results of any other science in its investigations.  Instead, scientific thinking needs to be recognized as a subset of firsthand lived experience.  It is perfectly acceptable to construct frameworks for deeper understanding of the natural world, but we should remain primarily oriented toward our immediate experience and conceptualize these frameworks in terms of what is more immediately given to us in such experience.  Phenomenology encourages us to get to a more basic and foundational experience of consciousness that is free from the edifice of our prior worldview so that it can be reconstructed on more stable ground.

This general outline of phenomenology was influential to many thinkers, who in some cases were inspired to formulate innovative phenomenological methods and sub-types.  Those will be covered in the subsections to follow, but first we need to examine the specific way that Husserl outlined for phenomenology, which involves a process for getting into a transcendental state of consciousness, wherein one can supposedly detach from all forms of public opinion and grasp the essence of consciousness itself.

He argued that the best way to isolate the central structures of subjectivity is to suspend all prior judgments, which is a process 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 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 that 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.

Husserl believed that through this sort of mental reduction one transcends their natural attitude toward the world and thus achieves a transcendental state of consciousness.  Whereas in the natural attitude, one’s introspective findings are inevitably contaminated by preconceptions and prejudices, once the transcendental state is achieved, more accurate findings can be reached with regards to the structures of consciousness.  Thus, transcendental phenomenology is an analysis of our immediate and pure perceptions of reality, which puts aside all preconceptions about it.  To practice this, you attempt to clear your head of all biases, prejudices, and mental comments on what you see, and you perceive things purely and simply. The product of this is fundamental knowledge which precedes all systematic descriptions of reality.  In order for one to make any statements about reality, they must begin with what their consciousness perceives. Phenomenological reality is precisely that which is perceived by the mind, which would have to have already been there before any thinking about it takes place in the intellect.

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, they should be able to intuitively grasp the essence of any object or basic concept.  This is based on the process known as eidos, wherein one conceptualizes the form and function of things and understands how they are similar or different and how they can be categorized and structured.  A crucial aspect of the reduction is that all features of conscious experience must be taken as they appear, without our attempting to categorize them as false or illusory and without assessing their validity as such.  The idea is that we cannot always know what our immediate experience means, what it was caused by, nor what it might refers to in the outside world, but we can take inventory and focus on our experiences for what they are.

Like Brentano before him, Husserl saw that consciousness consists of intentions, which is the experience of having ideas that are directed at something, but he expanded this notion to apply more universally regardless of whether these be actual objects in the world or mere imaginations.  He argued that all intentions consist of multiple components, including the quality of the intentional act, such as willing, believing, etc. and the object or content that the intentional act is directed towards, such as that which is willed, that which is believed, etc.  Husserl built on the concept of intentionality to formulate what he called constitution, which is the process through which many intentions form a greater conception of an object, either at a given moment in time or as an object changes through the passing of time.

Husserl then uses the concept of constitution to formulate the highest understanding of conscious experience, which he calls the life-world.  This is one’s conception of the interrelatedness of all things in their conception of reality as they go about their life.  In more advanced forms, this can involve unwinding, piece by piece, the assumptions and the ideology and the beliefs that constitute a worldview and also being cognizant of how these beliefs are structured and are built on top of each other.

The transcendental phenomenology that Husserl formulated was continued by some of his successors.  Among the most notable in this regard are Max Scheler, who extended Husserl’s work into an examination of the essences of emotions and intuition, Roman Ingarden, who used it to analyze how art and aesthetics relate to our lived experience, and Edith Stein, who sought to ground morality in our sense of empathy for one another.  Husserl’s most accomplished student was Martin Heidegger, who took phenomenology in a different direction by integrating it with existentialism and hermeneutics.  These ways of integrating phenomenology with other philosophical disciplines often accompany one another, most notably in Heidegger’s work, but other phenomenologists have been able to separate them to a large extent, and thus we will address each of these forms of phenomenology in the next few blog posts.

[1] Moran, Dermot and Mooney, Timothy. The Phenomenology Reader, p. 2.

[2] Varela, Neuro-phenomenology p. 336


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