Let’s Talk About Phenomenology

So, while taking a class on phenomenology last quarter, in between hating pretty much everything about Heidegger and Husserl, I managed to find some aspects of it from one thinker in particular that seemed, contra the two just mentioned, quite logical and empirically based. In this post and probably more to follow, I’m going to examine two famous phenomenologists, Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and see what I can pull from them in order to further my project of reclaiming continental philosophy for those (i.e., the rationalists) who claim it’s nothing but fancy wordplay.

Now, there are absolutely legitimate critiques against phenomenology; Husserl is exemplary of most of them. Ideas I, Edmund Husserl put forth a conception of phenomenology in which he advocated for the primacy of consciousness over the natural attitude, or empirical scientific thinking. In parenthesizing, or leaving out of our thoughts, the latter, in a process he called the “phenomenological reduction,” he posited that we would be able to investigate our beings through pure intuition, and only in this way could we reach greater understanding of it. Such a radical idea, such a notionally pure idea, free of suppositions, naturally leaves much to question about it, and thus we have the topic.

The goal from the outset for Husserl is unity, towards which his work has striven. He has constituted it in many different levels now, he says, but must fix the limits of his analysis in order to reach “the ultimate one, the level on which the Objective material thing is actually constituted” What he searches for now is the actual reality of the thing, how it exhibits itself according to its essence, and how that depends upon the human subject for its conception. In the end, he says, “The qualities of materials things… prove to be dependent upon my qualities, the make-up of the experiencing subject, and to be related to my body and my “normal sensibility.” This is because, he says, the Body is the lens through which all perception passes, thus making it an essential part of all perception. It is on this foundation that the Ego is built, and through which the Ego intuits space and senses; the Body is a rock, of the “here and now,” that remains steady and capable of supporting the Ego; it is only in relation to this rock that the Ego can create perception, and know whether the imagined centaur is to the right, or left, whether it is moving or stationary. Without this “center of orientation,” as Husserl puts it, senses would not be able to function as specifically as they do, and without the Ego, the body would be unable to move within the world.

So far, so good, right? Unfortunately not. See, Husserl decides later on that all of this empirical thinking, trying to note how he actually thinks his body works using sense perception and the like, is just not adequate enough, and so introduces a concept called “parenthesizing,” sometimes translated as “bracketing off,” meaning basically to eliminate or to put aside, in this case referring to our “natural attitude,” or the naturalistic account that many might use to view and analyze the world. This way, with the nasty reality forgotten, Husserl believes that we can truly engage with perception and through that connect with the mental and spiritual realms, which are subject to their own rules.

It all sounds just a bit religious, doesn’t it? Despite all of Husserl’s objections to the contrary, we still find him in a strange, Zen-ish idealism. This is the caricatured face of phenomenology; next post, I’ll show you the decent, down-to-earth side.

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