Print this post Print this post

A Prelude to Being & Time
What is Phenomenology?

2,992 words

Spanish translation here

Edmund Husserl, 1859–1938

Edmund Husserl, 1859–1938

Author’s Note:

Long, long ago, when I was still in graduate school, I had the daft idea of teaching Heidegger in an adult education class. It actually went quite well. I would usually prepare a detailed outline, follow it for a page, then start speaking extemporaneously. This is a student transcript of my background lecture on Being and Time. It has been only lightly edited. I added a citation and eliminated a few repetitions. If a tape comes to light, I will put it online. 

In Being and Time Heidegger transforms the central question of metaphysics — the so-called “ontological” question “What is Being?” — by the application of the phenomenological method of investigation developed by Edmund Husserl. So, to understand the project of Being and Time, we should answer two questions: “What is phenomenology?” then “What is ontology?”

Edmund Husserl and the Phenomenological Movement

The word “phenomenology” first appears in the 1764 work Neues Organon, by one Johann Heinrich Lambert, a German philosopher of the Wolffian school and a contemporary of Kant. After that the word appears here and there in German philosophy. There is a section on phenomenology in Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science and Hegel’s magnum opus is the Phenomenology of Spirit.

But when someone refers to the “phenomenological movement” in philosophy, they are referring to the movement founded by Edmund Husserl. Edmund Husserl was born in 1859 in Moravia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now part of the Czech Republic. Trained as a mathematician in Viennna, Husserl became interested in philosophy through the work of Franz Brentano–the same Franz Brentano whose book On the Manifold Senses of Being in Aristotle set Heidegger on his path to philosophy.

Husserl’s first book, the Philosophy of Arithmetic, is an attempt to ground the concept of number in the counting activities of the human knower. Husserl’s second book, the three massive volumes of the Logical Investigations, were published in 1900 and 1901. The Logical Investigations were immensely influential–on Heidegger and on German philosophy as a whole–and through them Husserl secured his first university appointment at Göttingen in 1901.

Other Husserl works are the three volumes of Ideas, Formal and Transcendental Logic, Cartesian Meditations, The Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, and The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.

In 1916, Husserl moved to the University of Freiburg, where Heidegger became his assistant. He retired in 1929 and lived a quiet life until his death in 1938 at the age of eighty-seven.

It was an outwardly uneventful life. Husserl was a kind and decent but uncharismatic man. Born a Jew, Husserl was a convert to Protestantism and a political conservative. Yet beneath his staid exterior was a vital and creative intellect focused with extraordinary intensity on what Husserl considered to be an infinite task of philosophical reflection.

Upon his death, Husserl left 45,000 pages of notes, comprising not only his lectures and book manuscripts, but also thousands upon thousands of pages of private philosophical reflections in which Husserl constantly worked and reworked his ideas. These writings are probably the best documentation we have of the life of rigorous philosophical speculation carried out for decades with the highest sense of mission, simply as an end in itself. Husserl’s writings are dense and difficult, rigorous and austere. His examples are drawn from the life of the scholar. His inkwell, for instance, is prominently featured in many of his writings as an object of intense reflection. Husserl was, in short, a consummate egghead. But this egghead launched a philosophical revolution.

The Phenomenological Revolution

The guiding slogan of phenomenology is “To the things themselves.” Husserl called this slogan “the principle of principles.” For Husserl, the things themselves are not, however, the Kantian “thing in itself” that lies beyond the realm of experience. Husserl’s principle means that the only authority for phenomenological philosophy is direct and immediate experience or intuition. Phenomenology takes what is given, simply as it is given, and tries to describe it carefully in its own terms.

Phenomenology is resolutely opposed to any form of reductionism. Reductionism is the view that one kind of thing is “nothing but” another kind of thing.

  • Thales, the first Greek philosopher, declared that all is nothing but water–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
  • Anaximenes declared that all is nothing but air–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
  • Other reductionists declare that life is nothing but matter–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
  • The individual is nothing but the sum of his social conditioning–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
  • Religion is nothing but neurotic wishful thinking–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
  • Mind is nothing but the brain–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
  • Politics is nothing but economics–appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

The reductionist method is to take two realms of experience–say matter and life–and declare that there is no ultimate difference between them. Life is “nothing but” matter, which means that the fact that living things appear to be different from inert matter is just an illusion; it is just “mere” appearance.

Phenomenology rejects on principle the attempt to claim that what appears to be different really isn’t; it rejects the attempt to elevate some realms of experience to true reality and demote other realms to mere appearance. Phenomenology takes appearances seriously; it takes them at face value and simply describes how they are given. If living things appear to be different than inert matter, then that is good enough for phenomenology. The phenomenologist then tries to articulate the precise manner in which life appears to be different, and leaves it at that.

So, the phenomenological method is the attempt to carefully describe and catalog the different ways in which things appear. Phenomenology describes how things show up or show themselves to us. But, as stated, this is ambiguous. When we talk about how something appears, we can refer either to the content of its appearance or the form of its appearance.

If, for instance, we describe how a glass appears, we can describe its shape, its size, and its color. This is a description of the content of its appearance. Or, we can describe how a glass appears by noting the fact that it is a three-dimensional object, and because it is a three-dimensional object we always see only one side of it at a time.

A three-dimensional spatial object is not present all at once; all of its sides and aspects are not given at the same time. Rather, some sides and aspects–those that face us–are given to us directly, while the others sides and aspects, which face away from us, are not directly given; rather, we apprehend them as absent aspects that could be made present simply by turning the glass around to face us, thereby making the absent side present–but at the cost of making the present side absent.

This kind of description of how a glass shows up to us deals with the form of its appearance, not its particular content. The description abstracts out any consideration of the particular qualities of the glass and treats it simply as a three-dimensional object, then seeks to describe how it is given to us. And the description of the form of the appearance of the glass applies just as well to all other three-dimensional objects.

All three-dimensional objects have pretty much the same form of appearance, a form of appearance which differs from the forms of appearance of psychic states and of mathematical and cultural objects. Living things appear to us as having purposes and values and their motions show up as actions in light of these concepts; dead material things do not.

Phenomenology leaves the description of the contents of the different realms of appearance to specialized sciences and sub-disciplines. The specialized sciences and disciplines divide the entire world up between them, and each sets busily to work describing and explaining the contents of its particular domain.

Because the entire world is divided up between these various disciplines, there would seem to be no phenomena left for phenomenology to study. However, because these specialized disciplines are so focused upon describing the contents of what appears in their specific domains, they overlook the forms of their appearance. The special sciences are so concerned with what appears that they give no thought to how it appears. They are so concerned with looking at what appears that they look through how they appear and thus overlook how they appear. Each specialized science has, therefore, a particular blind spot that is necessitated by the fact that one cannot be concerned with the form of appearances and the content of appearances at the same time. One’s attention cannot be in two places at once.

Husserl’s infinite phenomenological task was to describe and catalog all the different structures of appearance. To get a sense of how vast this project was and how picayune it could get, one of Husserl’s students at Göttingen spent an entire semester working out a careful phenomenological description of a mailbox. Husserl’s own work, however, was on considerably more important topics in logic, mathematics, the theory of knowledge, the philosophy of nature and values, and the philosophy of time.

Presence and Absence in Husserl’s Phenomenology

Now, although Husserl was concerned to discover the different ways in which things show up to us, and then just leave those differences alone, he did notice a number of patterns the cut across the different ways things show up to us. The most important of these patterns is what I shall call, following Robert Sokolowski, the interplay of presence and absence.

Husserl claims that all objects of consciousness are given to us through an interplay of presence and absence. Consciousness, or experience as such, can be seen as the interplay of presence and absence. What does it mean to say that beings are made present through presence and absence? How does absence come into the picture?

It is natural to understand consciousness in terms of presence. Your awareness of this lecture seems to be constituted out of various presences: our presence in the same room, the audible presence of my voice, and so forth. But presence is not what is essential to consciousness. Water may be present in a glass, but neither the glass nor the water is conscious of the other. The wonder of consciousness is the ability to establish and maintain cognitive relationships with absent objects. If I pour water out of a glass, the relationship of presence between the two vanishes. But when this lecture is over, you can still talk about it, think about it, praise it, crack jokes about it, etc., even in its absence. The miracle of consciousness is our ability to talk behind one another’s backs.

It is possible for us to be conscious of absent objects through the faculties of memory and imagination. We retain experiences in memory. In light of them, we can anticipate possible or even impossible experiences through imagination. Both of these powers are facilitated by, though not reducible to, language.

The claim that beings become present through presence and absence can, therefore, be understood as the claim that consciousness is most properly understood as an interplay between, on the one hand, the sensuous presence of the objects around us and, on the other hand, the faculties of memory, imagination, and speech that allow us to deal with beings in their absence. Thus cognition, for Husserl, always has an element of re-cognition, i.e., the experience of present objects as intended in their absence through language, memory, and imagination.

How Phenomenology Might Save the World

At this point, one ought to be wondering just why phenomenology was viewed as such an earthshaking philosophical development. Hans-Georg Gadamer recounts an amusing story in his memoir Philosophical Apprenticeships:

I still recall how I heard the term [phenomenology] for the first time in 1919. It was in Richard Hamann’s introductory art history seminar, where a kind of club came together for an exchange of views. Helmut von der Steinen led this memorable conversation in which the number of proposals for the renewal of the world was exactly equal to the number of participants. There was even a Marxist . . . . One person expected a renewal of Germany from [the poet] Stefan George, another expected as much from Rabindrath Tagore, a third conjured up the giant figure of Max Weber, and a fourth recommended Otto von Gierke’s theory of communal law . . . . Finally, someone declared with decisive conviction that the only thing that could save us was phenomenology. I accepted this devoutly and completely without even a shred of evidence to back it up.[1]

Phenomenology was remarkably popular for several reasons, all having to do with the fact that it stands as a corrective to the pervasive scientific reductionism of the time. Scientific reductionism has two dimensions.

First, there is the position known as scientific realism, which is the claim that the ordinary way people see the world is false and the way science sees the world is true. For instance, we experience a table as a solid object, whereas the physicist knows that the table is “really” nothing but a cloud of atoms and subatomic particles. It is more empty space than extended matter, and our perception of the table as solid is simply a naive and mistaken theory.

We experience the table as colored, whereas from the physicist’s perspective the table has no colors in itself and the color we perceive is a product of the interaction of our sense organs and the light reflected off the table–and the physicist’s perspective is “true” and ours is “false.” The table has no color in itself; it just has “reflectance properties” and our experience to the contrary is simply naive.

Human beings experience space and time as elastic, depending upon their purposes and activities and their physical size and perspective. The trip home is always shorter than the trip away from home, even though one’s watch and one’s speedometer register the same time and distance. The flight of stairs is longer at the end of the day than the beginning–but becomes quite short when one gets off work–even though the number of steps does not change. From a human point of view, buildings alter qualitatively as they grow in size, so that so many square feet of enclosed space alter when they are piled up together with ten thousand other identical units.

Scientific realism devaluates these kinds of experiences as mere illusions because they do not show up on objective scales of measurement. We should not feel any different if the same living space is on the ground floor of a house or small apartment building or on the top floor of a high-rise together with a thousand other identical units.

The result of scientific realism is the devaluation of the specifically human way of experiencing space and time, solids and spaces, colors and textures and their replacement with an so-called “objective” view of things that defines its objectivity precisely by the extent to which it abstracts away from the human way of experiencing the world. A world driven by scientific realism is a world in which human beings construct artifacts–and especially buildings and cities–that no longer bear any relation to the human way of experiencing the world. It is a world in which human beings feel dwarfed by and alienated from their own creations.

Husserl’s phenomenology rejects scientific realism and treats the human way of experiencing the world as having its own dignity and integrity, which must be taken into account. In his last work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Husserl even argues that the world of lived human experience–which Husserl calls the “lifeworld”–has primacy over the world as it is modeled by science, and that science must ultimately tie its abstractions back to the lifeworld if they are to have meaning. A clear implication of this view is that technology must also tie itself back to the world of lived experience if it too is to be meaningful.

A second element of scientific reductionism is the reduction of human existence as such to non-human or sub-human phenomena. This kind of reductionism has many forms. Human behavior and experience have been reduced to the mere manifestations of hidden psychological, technological, economic, political, social, cultural, biological, and racial causes.

In each case, these forms of reductionism deny our experiences of such specifically human features as rationality, creativity, freedom, and responsibility–our ability to discover how the world works, to bring new things into the world, and to take responsibility for them. Phenomenology cuts this kind of reductionism off at the root, simply by delegitimzing the denial of the truth of our experiences of freedom and responsibility, rationality and creativity.

By undercutting scientific realism and reductionism, phenomenology undercuts some of the most militant and destructive ideologies of our time, such as Marxism and the cult of technological Titanism and unlimited progress–all of which depend upon forms of scientific reductionism and realism.

Another reason for phenomenology’s importance is specifically philosophical. Reductionism is not just a staple of bad science and bad ideologies. It is also a feature of bad metaphysics. For instance:

  • Many metaphysical systems argue that change is less real than permanence, or permanence less real than change.
  • Some privilege sameness and deny the reality of difference.
  • Others privilege difference and deny the reality of sameness.
  • Some privilege mind and deny the existence of matter.
  • Others privilege matter and deny the existence of mind.
  • Some philosophers claim that intellect is primary and that sensations are but faint echoes of intellect.
  • Others hold the exact reverse.

All of these positions use the same reductionist technique of taking one realm of experience, treating it as privileged, and treating all others as merely illusory projections or decayed versions of the privileged realm. So phenomenology has radical implications for the critique and refashioning of metaphysics, which brings us to Heidegger.

Notes

1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Apprenticeships, trans. Robert R. Sullivan (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985), 14–15.

 

If you enjoyed this piece, and wish to encourage more like it, give a tip through Paypal. You can earmark your tip directly to the author or translator, or you can put it in a general fund. (Be sure to specify which in the "Add special instructions to seller" box at Paypal.)
This entry was posted in North American New Right and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

8 Comments

  1. Occidental Composer
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    A most enlightening essay, Dr. Johnson, thank you for posting this. As a music major, I’ve always been bedeviled by fancy words such as ‘phenomenology’ and ‘ontology’ without fully understanding what those terms mean. Even when I went to a dictionary, it was futile, because only a Philosophy major can expound these terms succinctly. This is important, because many students coast through university without even knowing what those terms mean – it’s tragic.

    Myself, being a Philosophy ‘noob,’ I had a question regarding the form and content aspects of your essay.

    I think I can follow your example of the glass, but I’m trying to transpose the concept of phenomenology into my “specialized sciences and sub-discipline” – music.

    So, a musical composition can be described by its CONTENT: i.e., in what key it is composed, the instruments used, the type of composition, ie., sonata, fugue, rondo, etc.– basically, the “what.” Correct?

    But also by its FORM — the “how.”

    Does this mean HOW it is presented to an audience? (and therefore HOW the audience perceives it) For example, a conductor’s interpretation of the musical score in the 21st century, despite the fact that the score might have been written many centuries before?

    Also, how does the score’s original context (political/historical/sociological, etc) play into the concept of phenomenology?

  2. GionTrent
    Posted March 6, 2015 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    Thanks for a good post. I’d always been suspicious of continental philosophy, but you’ve changed my mind on Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger.

    The reductionist method is to take two realms of experience–say matter and life–and declare that there is no ultimate difference between them. Life is “nothing but” matter, which means that the fact that living things appear to be different from inert matter is just an illusion; it is just “mere” appearance.

    I think that’s a caricature of reductionism. An snowflake is “nothing but” water and so are a wisp of steam and a drop of dew. This doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Obviously the way in which the water is organized is crucial. So I’m not sure that anyone, including a reductionist materialist, could say that matter is all there is. In what sense are the principles or laws governing the behaviour of matter themselves material? How is mathematics material? And no attempt to reduce consciousness to matter has ever succeeded.

  3. thordaddy
    Posted March 5, 2015 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    The metaphysical debate boils down to those anti-Supremacists who psychologically confine themselves to the universe of the redundant phenomenon (the true universal equality) and those Supremacists who grant the existence of The Singularity (and all subsequent singularities) thus providing a solution to the infinite regress of “our” General Entropy. “We” know “progressivism” to be a smokescreen for an asserted metaphysics of inevitable self-annihilation. Inherent to that inevitable annihilation is the unconsciuous belief that one is mere redundancy. The consequence of rejecting singular phenomena is the logic of absolute redundancy and the impetus to self-annihilate to no consequence. This is where most high IQ “white” males “stand” as anti-white Supremacists.

  4. GenYES
    Posted March 4, 2015 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    This was such an interesting essay. In the internet age, I sometimes have difficulty staying focused on an essay for more than five minutes, but I was able to breeze through this one. Clearly there is more to phenomenology than this essay could possibly convey, but I appreciate the CliffNotes summary. It makes me feel like a more enlightened human being.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted March 16, 2015 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. I was surprised at how widely-read this piece has been — and the reads continue to climb. I need to stop being shy about putting more philosophy on Counter-Currents. The Wednesday philosophy lectures will return, I promise.

  5. W.E. Cox
    Posted March 4, 2015 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing about Husserl’s legacy. Had we been capable of following his lead, and accomplishing the epoché, we’d have an actual functioning, pragmatic epistemology by now.

    That Husserl put forward the concept of the epoché, i.e., to deliberately suspend the otherwise continuous stream of pre-conscious filtering & interpretation that is placed between an immediate & external reality that impinges on us, and our resultant diminished & secondary day-to-day experience, places him, in my mind at any rate, at the head of the ranks of Western philosophers.

    What’s really out there, and what we might perceive were we to accomplish the epoché, we haven’t much of a clue. It’s an enormous unknown realm. And no one in the Western intellectual tradition has ever figured out how to do what Husserl prescribed. He didn’t know how to himself. But he could see that it was necessary, if we want to be anything other than naïve, parochial creatures.

    It’s supremely ironic that Husserl & Einstein had their long careers & published their masterworks in the same period in the West, during the same years. I consider it diagnostic of the 20th & 21st centuries (so far) that we embraced the materialist promise of the Einsteinian framework, and abandoned the more pragmatic & existentially meaningful promise of Husserlian phenomenology. I think we decided long ago to leave the world of the exulting & the foreboding, and settle down in the world of boredom.

  6. Ike
    Posted March 4, 2015 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    To quote Homer Simpson “Could ya dumb it down a shade?” And ya have and I get it! Very good work as always Greg. Btw, gonna have another Greg and Pat show anytime soon? Cheers.

    Ike.

  7. JJ
    Posted March 4, 2015 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Love it!

    Phenomenology on a New Right site is fantastic.

    Keep up the good work Greg.

    Kindle Subscription
  • EXSURGO Apparel

    Our Titles

    Confessions of a Reluctant Hater (2nd ed.)

    The Hypocrisies of Heaven

    Waking Up from the American Dream

    Green Nazis in Space!

    Truth, Justice, and a Nice White Country

    Heidegger in Chicago

    The End of an Era

    Sexual Utopia in Power

    What is a Rune? & Other Essays

    Son of Trevor Lynch's White Nationalist Guide to the Movies

    The Lightning & the Sun

    The Eldritch Evola

    Western Civilization Bites Back

    New Right vs. Old Right

    Lost Violent Souls

    Journey Late at Night: Poems and Translations

    The Non-Hindu Indians & Indian Unity

    Baader Meinhof ceramic pistol, Charles Kraaft 2013

    Jonathan Bowden as Dirty Harry

    The Lost Philosopher, Second Expanded Edition

    Trevor Lynch's A White Nationalist Guide to the Movies

    And Time Rolls On

    The Homo & the Negro

    Artists of the Right

    North American New Right, Vol. 1

    Forever and Ever

    Some Thoughts on Hitler

    Tikkun Olam and Other Poems

    Under the Nihil

    Summoning the Gods

    Hold Back This Day

    The Columbine Pilgrim

    Confessions of a Reluctant Hater

    Taking Our Own Side

    Toward the White Republic

    Distributed Titles

    Tyr, Vol. 4

    Reuben

    The Node

    Axe

    Carl Schmitt Today

    A Sky Without Eagles

    The Way of Men

    Generation Identity

    Nietzsche's Coming God

    The Conservative

    The New Austerities

    Convergence of Catastrophes

    Demon

    Proofs of a Conspiracy

    Fascism viewed from the Right

    Notes on the Third Reich

    Morning Crafts

    New Culture, New Right

    The Fourth Political Theory

    Can Life Prevail?

    The Metaphysics of War

    Fighting for the Essence

    The Arctic Home in the Vedas

    Asatru: A Native European Spirituality

    The Shock of History

    The Prison Notes

    Sex and Deviance

    Standardbearers

    On the Brink of the Abyss

    Beyond Human Rights

    A Handbook of Traditional Living

    Why We Fight

    The Problem of Democracy

    Archeofuturism

    The Path of Cinnabar

    Tyr

    The Lost Philosopher

    Impeachment of Man

    Gold in the Furnace

    Defiance

    The Passing of a Profit & Other Forgotten Stories

    Revolution from Above