Almost everyone who has studied philosophy, even briefly, has encountered the term “phenomenology.” But what exactly does phenomenology mean for Husserl? The motto of Husserlian phenomenology, taken from his Logical Investigations, is “back to the things themselves.”1 This is a powerful statement, but it requires elucidation. Husserl maintains that phenomenology has two meanings which are intimately connected with one another. First, phenomenology is a “new kind of descriptive method.”2 Every science and discipline has a unique method that allows it to accurately and successfully obtain knowledge in its appropriate domain. Phenomenology is no exception. Husserl explains that the method of phenomenology is the straightforward description of that which is found in consciousness. One begins with what is given to consciousness as phenomena and then faithfully describes it exactly as it is given. Thus, because it studies consciousness, phenomenological philosophy has undeniable parallels with phenomenological psychology. Indeed, Husserl maintains that the entire content of psychology can be transformed to that of transcendental phenomenology through an alteration (albeit, a radical alteration) in standpoint.
Further, since transcendental phenomenology is a descriptive science, it does not proceed deductively from axioms like other sciences such as geometry. For example, to prove that a triangle’s angles add up to 180 degrees, it is necessary to begin with basic premises like “Given any two points, you can draw a straight line between them.” From axioms such as this, all the propositions of geometry can be derived through logical deduction. In contrast, phenomenology proceeds by pure description. So, phenomenology as a descriptive science is more like botany than it is like geometry: it beholds and describes the objects in its field of study rather than deriving truths about them from first principles.
However, unlike botany, phenomenology cannot begin with any presuppositions. Indeed, unlike every other science, which at least takes for granted the world and the realities found therein, phenomenology begins with no assumptions. Even the psychologist, although he does not participate in the beliefs and positings of the individuals he studies, nonetheless investigates consciousness simply as one reality among many in the world. Phenomenology, on the contrary, can take nothing for granted. Thus, because of this suspension of all presuppositions, phenomenology can be seen as a kind of empiricism or positivism, although one which is essentially different from traditional empiricism or positivism, simply because it is more radical than them. As Husserl writes, “If by ‘Positivism’ we are to mean the absolute unbiased grounding of all science on what is ‘positive’, i.e., on what can be primordially apprehended, then it is we who are the genuine positivists.”3
Finally, by describing the necessary possibilities of consciousness (i.e., what it essentially is) rather than its contingent actualities (i.e., what it happens to be at a particular place and time), phenomenology strives to be a rigorous, apodictic science. In other words, for Husserl, by accepting things as they present themselves in consciousness, simply as they are beheld, we can obtain universal and necessary knowledge. Hence, because of this, Husserl argues that, besides the methodological meaning, phenomenology has another meaning, viz, that of an “a priori science derived from [the descriptive method].”4 At least from the time of “Philosophy as Rigorous Science” (1910) onward, Husserl’s goal was to found a new first philosophy which could serve as the foundation for all other philosophy and thus make philosophy a rigorous, apodictic science. In this way, phenomenology as a science of necessary and universal truths is closer to geometry than it is to (for example) geography, as the latter only deals with particular facts that could be otherwise than they actually are (i.e., the accidental shapes of landscapes).
So, then, what is phenomenology? Husserlian phenomenological philosophy is a descriptive science (like botany), a science of essences (like geometry), and a science of consciousness (like psychology). However, phenomenology differs essentially from all of these, even though it parallels them in certain ways. Therefore, when Husserl asserts that we must return to the things themselves, he means that we must go back to the source of all theory, the fount of all knowledge, i.e., experience. To do so, we must strip ourselves of all presuppositions by rising above and suspending our participation in our natural beliefs and positings. However, this process requires a radical change of attitude or standpoint. All other sciences operate within the “natural attitude,” but phenomenology, as first philosophy, cannot do so, since phenomenology studies the conditions for both the natural attitude and the sciences of it. Hence, without this “change of signature,” phenomenological philosophy is impossible. In future posts, I will examine in detail the path to transcendental phenomenology, which Husserl refers to as “the phenomenological reduction.”
What do you think about Husserl’s conception of phenomenology? Please feel free to share your thoughts.
1 Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, vol.1, trans. J.N. Findlay. (New York: Routledge, 1970), 168.
2 Edmund Husserl, “Phenomenology,” trans. Richard E. Palmer, Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 2 (1971), 78.
3 Edmund Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, I, 2, §20, trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson (Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books, 2017), 86.
4 Husserl, “Phenomenology,” 78.
All photographs used in this post are either in the public domain, are free to use without restriction, or are free to use under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0, see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. The first photo in this post is called “A session with a psychotherapist” by Mike Renlund.