Phenomenology and the question of ‘the given’ – notes from lecture 1 (part1)

Phenomenology begins with the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). His project develops out of an attempt to understand the basis of mathematics as well as an engagement with the (at that time) newly formed science of psychology. Philosophically, however, it can be seen as a critical point in the development of philosophy. From Descartes onwards, modern philosophy was dominated by something we can refer to as the ‘Epistemological Project’. As its name suggests, this placed the emphasis of philosophy on discovering the forms of knowledge (epistemology – theory of knowledge), but it did this with certain commonly agreed preconceptions. The ‘Epistemological Project’ refers to the attempt to discover the forms of knowledge by searching for two key things:

  • Foundations
  • Certainty (the ‘quest for certainty‘, a notion derived from John Dewey’s work ‘The question of certainty’ from 1935)

Descartes ‘cogito’, for example, is proposed as an answer to the epistemological problem because Descartes thinks he has discovered the foundation of all knowledge in the certainty of the ‘cogito ergo sum’. The method of doubt reveals that the concern is with certainty in that it rejects anything that can be doubted precisely because it can be doubted. It was not, however, simply the rationalists who were part of the ‘Epistemological Project’ – the empiricists, from Hume onwards, were also constrained by similar concerns even though their attempt to resolve the problems of knowledge used radically different methods.

Both rationalists and empiricists are located inside the ‘Epistemological Project’ through their concept of ‘the given’ (ie; something that is ‘given to us’ rather than ‘created by us’ and thus liable to distortion by opinion). Something is needed, goes the argument, that can be taken as the ‘absolutely given’ and thus the starting point for building up our knowledge. This ‘given’ is to be found, the rationalists and empiricists think, by examining subjective appearances – in other words, by examining that which is given to the subject.

  • For Descartes and the rationalists the given is thoughts
  • For Hume and the empiricists the given is impressions or sensations

If we take the example of seeing a table, then we can say that for the rationalists the claim that ‘I think I see a table’ is a given, even if what I actually see if in fact something else. Thus the given comes before we judge something to be accurately given – in order to assess a knowledge claim as right or wrong (as actually existing knowledge or as error), we might say, there must be something given to us about which we can make a knowledge claim. For the empiricists the given is not going to be a thought but an impression or sensation and thus we can take the claim about the table and say something like the claim ‘I have the impression of seeing a table’ is given as even if the impression is wrong, the impression is still given as an impression of a table.

Husserl radically rejects the account of the given found in the ‘Epistemological Project’. He is going to argue that both rationalists and empiricists are mistaken it thinking that it is a subjective appearance that is given. In fact, Husserl will want to say, it is the table itself that is given (though not in a naive sense – it is by trying to understand how the ‘thing itself’ might be given to us, rather than a subjective appearance, that we will begin to explore Husserl’s ideas). It is this impulse, to say that the thing itself is given to us, that underlies the famous slogan Husserl raises – ‘Back to the things themselves!’

For the rationalists and empricists, Husserl will want to argue, the structure of the way they approach the given is as follows: the given is encountered as the experience of an experience. The impression, let’s say, is an experience. Then we have the claim that ‘I have’ these impressions and in making this claim we find this structure of the ‘experience of an experience’ – ie; ‘I have’ (experience1) an impression (experience2)’. Sometimes this problem is referred to as the ‘homunculus problem’. This is the idea that when we perceive an image, for example, there is a ‘little person’ in our heads who is perceiving the image as though it were projected on a screen behind our eyes.

For Husserl, in contrast, the structure of an experience is not automatically doubled but instead it is simply an experience that is given. We need to concentrate on the experience itself, in all its nature (‘back to the things themselves’ – though hopefully you will now see that quite what ‘things’ are in phenomenology is something we will have to think carefully about – they are plainly not a ‘thing’ in a naive sense in which a thing is taken to be just a physical object). In the course of examining the nature of experience itself Husserl is eventually going to develop a new concept of experience.

This leads us onto an important historical point about Husserl. His work is divided into three periods:

  • Early Period – works on the philosophy of maths, logic and science – we will be studying ‘The Logical Investigations’ from 1901 – a kind of proto-phenomenology. In Husserl’s pre-phenomological period (ie; before this ‘early period’ of his phenomology) he had written the ‘Philosophy of Arithmetic’ in an attempt to explain the foundations of mathematics. He had taken a psychologistic line of argument in that and had been attcaked heavily by Gottlob Frege. It was in part as a response to Frege’s criticisms that he wrote developed ‘The Logical Investigations’ and focussed that work on an attcak on psychologism. Another work of the early period, ‘Philosophy as a rigorous science’ (1910/1911) again sets out a critique of psychologism and relativism in general (ie; the view that there is no such thing as objective truth). He argues for a non-psychologistic (non-relativist) theory of subjectivity. The ‘rigorous science’ he advocates looks likely the early form of phenomenology.
  • Middle Period – the first mature and full-blown phenomenological – we will be studying ‘Ideas’ from 1913 (often known as ‘Ideas 1’ as there were three books of this title) – during this period Husserl develops a version of idealism called ‘transcendental idealism’ akin in some ways to Berkeley. The method of ‘phenomenology’ is explicitly formulated for the first time in ‘Ideas’.
  • Late Period – increasingly focussing explicitly on the nature of experience and ‘duality’, Husserl begins to develop formulations that seem to go beyond an idealism. We will be studying ‘The Crisis of the European Sciences’ from 1936. During this period the practical application of phenomenological methods has begun to have an effect on the way phenomenology itself is co

There are a whole range of other texts that Husserl produced that I haven’t mentioned here as well as a huge archive of notebooks that he left behind. Husserl was nothing if not a prolix writer at times and his books are often large and not particularly succint, though this could be seen less as a ‘wordiness’ and more as the natural result of a very flexible and dynamic philosopher who would begin to criticise his own thought as soon as he had formulated it.

The three periods also represent different philosophical positions and Husserl is an example of a philosopher actively shifting positions as he takes account of new arguments, both from himself and others. In the early period his interest is in developing a form of objective knowledge. He focuses on the nature of content and argues for an objective content to knowledge. He has begun to break from the ‘Epistemological Project’ and it’s presupposed structure of ‘the given’ but he still retains a ‘quest for certainty’ at the heart of his work. In the middle period he is a full blown idealist and here he begins to develop the concept of consciousness that will be central to the development of phenomenology. In the late period Husserl has begun to reject the ‘Epistemological Project’ in full, a tendency that will be taken up as explicitly in the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Here the central concept is that of experience.

(To Be Continued – I will post the notes for the discussion of logical validity over the weekend of Jan 13/14)

SEMINAR WORK (for 15th January):
1) The reading from Hume’s ‘Enquiries‘ – (Section XII, Part 1, marginal number 118) – this explicitly points to the notion of the ‘doubled experience’
2) – read the extracts from ‘The Logical Investigations’ (section 41)

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.