In this essay I will be attempting to explain the phenomenological method and Epoché before studying what it does and does not accomplish. First of all I will be defining phenomenology and setting out Edmund Husserl’s (1859-1938) method. When this is done I will be looking into Husserl’s Epoché by showing how he was influenced by Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and his teacher Franz Brentano (1838-1917). Moving on from this I will be looking at Husserl’s similarities between Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and where the fundamental disagreement between Husserl and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) stemmed from. After this I will be concluding my essay and attempting to clarify what Husserl was attempting to do, as well as set out my own views on his works and method. For my concluding views and statement I will be using the French Philosopher Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) (1694-1778).
So what is Phenomenology? The word is taken from the Greek phainomenon, which means appearance. (1) A definition from a popular Philosophy book describes it as such:
‘Phenomenology: An approach to philosophy which investigates objects of experience (Known as phenomena) only to the extent that they manifest themselves in our consciousness, without making any assumptions about their nature as independent things.'(2)
Phenomenology is the study of the conscious structures and intentional forms of the first person experience. It is the attempt to study the raw experiences and fine details of experience. An examination of the contents and structure of consciousness, using perception and the invocation of memories as a method. It’s not just the literal experience, but everything that comes with it, links with it, and the baggage that comes with all that which is important to a phenomenologist. Phenomenology is more concerned about the experience, rather than the object of the experience. ‘Phenomenology is the study of our experience – How we experience.’ (3) So it is more concerned with the phenomena, thinking about experience, intentionality and aboutness, rather than the object. Thus, closing the gap between consciousness and the experience ‘of’; is phenomenology and what it is trying to do.
Phenomenology was popularized by a German philosopher called Edmund Husserl who was working from his teacher’s work, Franz Brentano. I will talk about both of these philosophers, as well as Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger as I explain the Epoché and method of phenomenology.
So what is the phenomenological method and Epoché? It began with Husserl’s concern that science and philosophy has no real foundation, or at least that foundation had yet to be uncovered. ‘(Husserl) (S)tarts out by stressing the need for a firm, lucid foundation and construction of science. Practical results do not yet guarantee flawless theoretical construction.’ (4) Thus, his main endeavour was to study consciousness. Husserl attempted to do this with his Epoché method. The Epoché is fundamentally the suspension of judgement, describing defines judgement. The essence is in the method, not the conclusion or result. It is a method of bracketing off presuppositions. Bracketing removes the ‘Chatter’ of experience, to refine consciousness and experience it for what it is. Bracketing is a meditation in the Descartian form. Taking any distractions and reducing the chatter of presuppositions to a minimum. Refinement towards certainty, similar to the scientific method and overtly based on it by Husserl. And this is the phenomenological method: comparing and describing ideas and experience with a willingness to work in the notional world.
Husserl was a mathematician, which gave him his concern with certainty and scepticism. He was interested in finding axiomatic laws just like those of maths – Which are analytical truths. Husserl’s mathematical background had implications on how he viewed science and philosophy. For example: science relies on experience, and thus is subjective. However, mathematics does not, and therefore has a solid foundation in Husserl’s opinion. He wanted to put all philosophy and science on a similar foundation. ‘Husserl begins by pointing out that natural knowledge is based on facts which become known through experience. In accordance with factual knowledge of this kind, we find factual sciences, the so-called natural sciences.’ (5) However, the ‘solid’ foundation of mathematics is non-existent. We have no reasons to accept the axioms which allow us to do mathematics: we just do mathematics and accept them. We also do this with logic; we have no reason to accept the axioms of logic, except for the fact that logic is logical. But this means we are accepting a foundation which is only justified if we already accept the method of logic. While Husserl doesn’t bring this up, he does resolve it in a manner. But to bring this out I must mention Rene Descartes’ method and how Husserl came to view this method as a way forward using the Epoché of phenomenology.
Rene Descartes is famous for his meditations and discourse on the method. This ‘method’ was the process of systematic doubt which resulted in the only certainty being that one exists: I cannot exist and doubt. I can only doubt because I exist – Therefore, I exist. The problem with this is that it only puts the self – the thinking being – on a factual foundation, while leaving the senses, experiences and the entire external world as subjective, and potentially false. Husserl admired this endeavour and said of it himself: ‘Every beginner in philosophy knows the remarkable train of thoughts contained in the Meditations. Let us recall its guiding idea. The aim of the Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation.’ (6) Husserl found in this method something which he himself wished to use to find a solid foundation for all philosophy.
The Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am.) doesn’t give you an end, but a method. A means to an end, the method is the truth. In many ways Husserl and Descartes agree. For example Husserl wanted a conceptual foundation for philosophy and science, avoiding the empirical foundations. A fixation on the external world is problematic to both thinkers. If one can think about ideas which have no foundation in reality, then there must be something which makes consciousness work outside the realm of the external. (7) But Husserl also identified the thinking ego as a core to his phenomenology and knowledge.
‘At this point, following Descartes, we make the great reversal that, if made in the right manner, leads to transcendental subjectivity: the turn to the ego cogito as the ultimate and apodictically certain basis for judgements, the basis on which any radica-philosophy must be grounded.’ (8)
Husserl wants to move away from Descartes conclusions, but use his method and dualism by concentrating on consciousness and its intentionality. He believed Descartes to have found a flawless truth, but one which also left the subject empty and without senses and perceptions. This problem with Descartes is expressed by Robert D. Walsh in his essay Husserl’s Epoche as method and truth:
‘In the crisis, Husserl criticizes the “Cartesian” approach to the reduction as having “a great shortcoming” in that it prematurely achieves the transcendental “in one leap,” and consequently finds itself involved with a transcendental “ego” that is “empty of content” – merely the bare universal which has not yet been fully explicated (C, III A, 43, p. 155).’ (9)
Husserl worked on the thoughts of his teacher, Franz Brentano, who was more of a religious thinker than a scientist, who went back to the scholastic tradition. (10) Towards intentionality and qualia. Although Kant and Hegel used the term phenomenology, it was streamlined to what it today means by Brentano. To be is to be directed towards something – intentionality. ‘From Brentano, Husserl drew the principle that all consciousness, by its very nature, is consciousness ‘of’, in other words, is intentional.’ (11) Consciousness is noumenal, while consciousness ‘of’ and reflection is phenomenological. Husserl was concerned with how we get truths from the stream of consciousness: which is very similar to Kant’s idea of how being as a human puts truth in place; time, space, causality, etc. (12) Just as Brentano thought, Husserl also thought – If consciousness is awareness or intuition towards something, then consciousness has a property, and if consciousness has a property then it can be studied. And if consciousness can be studied and also shown to be a solid foundation: it also becomes worth studying as well as a foundational basis for everything. This is expressed by Christopher Macann in his summing up of the phenomenological method:
‘The phenomenological method is a method of transcendental reflection, and a considerable amount of time is spent establishing and justifying the relevant concept of reflection. First, reflection in the phenomenological sense is not to be confused with what might be called ‘natural’ reflection, that is, a reflective procedure through which the self becomes an (and one might almost say the) object of reflection. Phenomenologically speaking, consciousness is not to be regarded as one domain of reality among many others (that is, the psyche). Rather, it is the foundation of reality in its entirety.’ (13)
It seems to anyone new to Husserl that by bracketing off these presuppositions that human beings form a concept of reality with, he will be left with nothing but the noumenal assumptions all humans have by virtue of nature (Those mentioned before: Time, space, and so on). And thus it seems that Husserl has trapped himself and made phenomenology impossible to study because we can never bracket off such things. ‘Husserl runs the risk of Protagoras’ dictum, or at least being interpreted that way. While what he is saying is that consciousness ‘of’ is a noumenal, not a relativistic truth.’ (14) For Husserl, those noumenal presuppositions are: by their very nature and by virtue of how we be; truth. To restate this clearly: consciousness is the realm of all being. Kant’s presuppositions are phenomenological truths, which make metaphysical explanations unnecessary; as experience and consciousness make these explicit to us merely by being and living: experience. Or, to put it in another way:
‘From a Husserlian standpoint, the pure laws of thought which a phenomenological elucidation brings to light are not in any way dependant upon the contingencies of the human understanding. Any rational understanding capable of living through acts of thought in some way or other would eventually be brought to recognise these a priori laws of thought. For this very reason there is no need of any metaphysical explanation for the congruence of the course of nature with the nature of our understanding.’ (15)
Husserls attempt to remove presuppositions has similarities to what Wittgenstein was doing in his philosophy of language – to state that nothing is hidden, that everything is already out and there: words are denoted by their use. The difference is that Husserl was attempting to isolate experience. To judge it and experience it by itself only, rather than judge it from our holistic presuppositions, thus putting the subjective back into philosophy. To Husserl experience is everything, even when it is delusional or dreams. It is the consciousness ‘of’ which is the important thing. Everything is in the experience: nothing is hidden. Husserl believed phenomenology to be the foundation of all philosophy: everything stems from experience, but not in the sense of empiricism. While his student Heidegger didn’t agree: he thought metaphysics was the foundation of all philosophy. From which stems there fundamental differences and disagreement. Heidegger removes the dualistic aspect of Husserl’s phenomenology which stems from Kant’s German Idealism: that there are two worlds – Reality and the experienced world. While Heidegger though that being and experience is the reality. That we are being with the world, a part of the world and utterly absorbed and unable to step out of it. (16)
So what is Husserl claiming to do with phenomenology? He is following Descartes’ and Kant’s thoughts. Husserl agrees with Descartes’ methods and Kant’s conclusions about presuppositions. He however doesn’t agree with Kant’s categories, but they are in fundamental agreement about how consciousness has innate presuppositions which are what give us our world. Our intention can add to the world, but not objectively. Consciousness constructs the world based on the objective world. But our intentionality and innate suppositions can add and interpret in a way that this reality becomes somewhat subjectively conceptualized. In this way Husserl is still a dualist in the sense that Kant’s noumenal and subjective world are dualistic. As mentioned before, Heidegger ignores this apparent dualism. Husserl tries to bring this idea to the forefront for all, while Heidegger takes it much further but reduces the two worlds to one experiential one. To Husserl, consciousness is transcendental in the same way that the concepts of time and space are innate by our very nature and being: it is how we live. Thus, the Epoché, the method, and the way we live are all the same thing. This leads me to the conclusion that Husserl thought that dualism was another of Kant’s noumenal presuppositions – that is to say: Dualism is innate and part of our very being. And I think this was Husserl aim all along: to bring out what it means to be, what it means to experience and how we do so. So ultimately I see him as the brainchild of Kant’s German Idealism and Descartes’ Cartesian Dualism: The synthesiser of both. Husserl himself expresses the importance of the Epoché and the noumenal/phenomenological presuppositions in his Cartesian Meditations:
‘The Delphic motto, “Know thyself!” Has gained a new signification. Positive science is a science lost in the world. I must lose the world by epoché, in order to regain it by a universal self-examination. “Noli foras ire,” says Augustine, “in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas. (Do not wish to go out; go back into yourself. Truth dwells in the inner man. (17) – De vera religione, 39, n. 72.)’ (18)
To conclude – In his search for certainty I think Husserl stumbled across the opposite. And I do not think that is anything to take as an excuse to ignore his work, but I do think it is a great illustration of our problem as a thinking being. We are overtly searching for something, a conclusion, a truth. In this sense I think Husserl is truly inspiring, He identified the method and not the conclusion as the important thing, the truth, the way. Whether he would like it or not we have to make conclusions (Even if they are that we should not/cannot make conclusions), and my only conclusion is that the search for certainty is like that of the search for perfection: it is a valid search which shall take us to many new places, inspire great thoughts, and inventions will be the product of breaking new grounds. But it’s ultimately unobtainable. However, I don’t see this unobtainability of certainty as a problem, or as a reason not to try. To quote a French philosopher of the age of revolution: “Every idea and theory can be challenged. Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” (19) In this same vein we shall challenge by using our method of doubt in order to get closer to certainty. And that, as I have said before, is nothing to fear. The best method of using doubt to get closer to certainty that we have at the moment is the Scientific method. And it shall be refined, and always continued to be. Rather than be a solid foundation which lacks change or doubt. And to do, or think otherwise would be absurd.
1. Article on Phenomenology –
First published Sun Nov 16, 2003; substantive revision Mon Dec 16, 2013.
Accessed on Monday 9th November, 2015.
2. Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnam, Clive Hill, Peter J. King, John Marenbon, and Marcus Weeks. The philosophy book. Glossary. Page 342. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2011.)
3. Article on Phenomenology –
First published Sun Nov 16, 2003; substantive revision Mon Dec 16, 2013.
Accessed on Monday 9th November, 2015.
4. Jan Patočka. An introduction to Husserl’s phenomenology. Chapter 2, The philosophy of arithmetic. Page 28. (Carus Publishing Company, 1996. Translated by Erazim Kohák. Edited with an introduction by James Dodd.)
5. Christopher Macann. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Husserl: Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, Ideas I. Page 25. (Routledge, 1993)
6. Edmund Husserl. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction To Phenomenology. Introduction – 1. Descartes’ Meditations as the prototype of philosophical reflection. Page 1. (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands. 1960.)
7. The external and phenomena taken from Christopher Macann. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Husserl: Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. Page 17. (Routledge, 1993)
8. Edmund Husserl. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction To Phenomenology. First Meditation: The way to the transcendental ego. – 8. The ego cogito as transcendental subjectivity. Page 18. (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands. 1960.)
9. Robert D. Walsh’s (Of Marquette University) Essay: Husserl’s epoche as method and truth. 3. The “Cartesian” Reduction. Page 214.
Accessed on Tuesday 10th November 2015 at –
10. Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnam, Clive Hill, Peter J. King, John Marenbon, and Marcus Weeks. The philosophy book. Directory. Page 336. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2011.)
11. Christopher Macann. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Husserl: Husserl’s epistemological phenomenology, The point of departure. Page 3. (Routledge, 1993)
12. Kant’s noumenal suppositions and how we project concepts onto the world, as well as the limits of our perceptions and mind:
1 – Mel Thompson. Teach yourself: Philosophy of mind. Section 04, Mind and the theory of knowledge. Innateness. Pages 89-91. (Of the teach yourself series, http://www.teachyourself.com, 2003.)
2 – Mel Thompson. Teach yourself: Philosophy of religion. Section 04, God: The arguments. The Teleological argument. Projected design. Page 121. (Of the teach yourself series, http://www.teachyourself.com, 2009 reissue.)
3 – “Kant – I am phenomenally conditioned but noumenally free, therefore the mind is beyond the categories that apply to sense experience.”
Mel Thompson. Teach yourself: Philosophy. Section 04, Philosophy of mind. Background notes. Page 100. (Of the teach yourself series, http://www.teachyourself.com, 2006.)
4 – Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason. (Penguin classics, 2007.)
13. Christopher Macann. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Husserl: Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, Ideas I. Pages 31-32. (Routledge, 1993)
14. Protagoras’ dictum that “Man is the measure of all things.” taken from Jan Patočka. An introduction to Husserl’s phenomenology. Chapter 2, The philosophy of arithmetic. Page 33. (Carus Publishing Company, 1996. Translated by Erazim Kohák. Edited with an introduction by James Dodd.)
15. Christopher Macann. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Husserl: Husserl’s epistemological phenomenology, The logical investigations. Page 16. (Routledge, 1993)
16. Martin Heidegger’s Phenomenological philosophy:
Christopher Macann. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Chapter 2, Martin Heidegger. Pages 56-109. (Routledge, 1993)
17. ‘(I)f a single phrase were required as an epitaph for Husserl’s thought, it might be this: Truth dwells in the inner man.’ – Christopher Macann. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. Husserl: Husserl’s genetic phenomenology. Page 54. (Routledge, 1993)
18. Edmund Husserl. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction To Phenomenology. Conclusion. 64. Concluding word. Page 157. (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands. 1960.)
19. Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnam, Clive Hill, Peter J. King, John Marenbon, and Marcus Weeks. The philosophy book. The age of Revolution (1750-1900). Pages 146-147. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2011.)
– Buckingham, Will. Burnam, Douglas. Hill, Clive. King, Peter J. Marenbon, John. Weeks, Marcus. The philosophy book. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2011.)
– Descartes, Rene. Meditations and discourse on the method.
– Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction To Phenomenology. (Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, Netherlands. 1960.)
– Kant, Immanuel. Critique of pure reason. (Palgrave Macmillan, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, revised second edition ((With new introduction by Howard Caygill) published 2003.)
– Macann, Christopher. Four Phenomenological Philosophers. (Routledge, 1993)
– Patočka, Jan. An introduction to Husserl’s phenomenology. (Carus Publishing Company, 1996. Translated by Erazim Kohák. Edited with an introduction by James Dodd.)
– Rodgers, Nigel. Thompson, Mel. Teach yourself: Understand Existentialism. (Of the teach yourself series, http://www.teachyourself.com, 2010.)
– Thompson, Mel. Teach yourself: Philosophy. (Of the teach yourself series, http://www.teachyourself.com, 2006.)
– Thompson, Mel. Teach yourself: Philosophy of mind. (Of the teach yourself series, http://www.teachyourself.com, 2003.)
– Thompson, Mel. Teach yourself: Philosophy of religion. (Of the teach yourself series, http://www.teachyourself.com, 2009 reissue.)
– Zahavi, Dan. Husserl’s Phenomenology. (Stanford University press, 2003.)