Philosophical Essays in Memory of Edmund Husserl

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Phenomenology is commonly understood in either of two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy, or as a movement in the history of philosophy. The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.

This field of philosophy is then to be distinguished from, and related to, the other main fields of philosophy: ontology the study of being or what is , epistemology the study of knowledge , logic the study of valid reasoning , ethics the study of right and wrong action , etc. The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20 th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al.

In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy—as opposed, say, to ethics or metaphysics or epistemology. The methods and characterization of the discipline were widely debated by Husserl and his successors, and these debates continue to the present day.

The definition of phenomenology offered above will thus be debatable, for example, by Heideggerians, but it remains the starting point in characterizing the discipline. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. Phenomenology as a discipline has been central to the tradition of continental European philosophy throughout the 20 th century, while philosophy of mind has evolved in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy that developed throughout the 20 th century.


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Yet the fundamental character of our mental activity is pursued in overlapping ways within these two traditions. Accordingly, the perspective on phenomenology drawn in this article will accommodate both traditions. The main concern here will be to characterize the discipline of phenomenology, in a contemporary purview, while also highlighting the historical tradition that brought the discipline into its own. Basically, phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity.

These make up the meaning or content of a given experience, and are distinct from the things they present or mean. The basic intentional structure of consciousness, we find in reflection or analysis, involves further forms of experience. Furthermore, in a different dimension, we find various grounds or enabling conditions—conditions of the possibility—of intentionality, including embodiment, bodily skills, cultural context, language and other social practices, social background, and contextual aspects of intentional activities.

Thus, phenomenology leads from conscious experience into conditions that help to give experience its intentionality. Traditional phenomenology has focused on subjective, practical, and social conditions of experience. Recent philosophy of mind, however, has focused especially on the neural substrate of experience, on how conscious experience and mental representation or intentionality are grounded in brain activity.

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It remains a difficult question how much of these grounds of experience fall within the province of phenomenology as a discipline. Cultural conditions thus seem closer to our experience and to our familiar self-understanding than do the electrochemical workings of our brain, much less our dependence on quantum-mechanical states of physical systems to which we may belong. The cautious thing to say is that phenomenology leads in some ways into at least some background conditions of our experience.

The discipline of phenomenology is defined by its domain of study, its methods, and its main results. Phenomenology studies structures of conscious experience as experienced from the first-person point of view, along with relevant conditions of experience.

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The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, the way it is directed through its content or meaning toward a certain object in the world. We all experience various types of experience including perception, imagination, thought, emotion, desire, volition, and action. Thus, the domain of phenomenology is the range of experiences including these types among others. Experience includes not only relatively passive experience as in vision or hearing, but also active experience as in walking or hammering a nail or kicking a ball.

The range will be specific to each species of being that enjoys consciousness; our focus is on our own, human, experience. Not all conscious beings will, or will be able to, practice phenomenology, as we do. Conscious experiences have a unique feature: we experience them, we live through them or perform them. Other things in the world we may observe and engage. But we do not experience them, in the sense of living through or performing them. How shall we study conscious experience?

We reflect on various types of experiences just as we experience them.


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That is to say, we proceed from the first-person point of view. However, we do not normally characterize an experience at the time we are performing it. Rather, we acquire a background of having lived through a given type of experience, and we look to our familiarity with that type of experience: hearing a song, seeing a sunset, thinking about love, intending to jump a hurdle.

The practice of phenomenology assumes such familiarity with the type of experiences to be characterized. Importantly, also, it is types of experience that phenomenology pursues, rather than a particular fleeting experience—unless its type is what interests us. Classical phenomenologists practiced some three distinguishable methods.

Thus, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty spoke of pure description of lived experience. In this vein, Heidegger and his followers spoke of hermeneutics, the art of interpretation in context, especially social and linguistic context.

Edmund Husserl

In the end, all the classical phenomenologists practiced analysis of experience, factoring out notable features for further elaboration. These traditional methods have been ramified in recent decades, expanding the methods available to phenomenology. Thus: 4 In a logico-semantic model of phenomenology, we specify the truth conditions for a type of thinking say, where I think that dogs chase cats or the satisfaction conditions for a type of intention say, where I intend or will to jump that hurdle.

Edmund Husserl (1859—1938)

What makes an experience conscious is a certain awareness one has of the experience while living through or performing it. Does this awareness-of-experience consist in a kind of inner observation of the experience, as if one were doing two things at once? Brentano argued no. Recent theorists have proposed both.


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  • Or is it a different form of inherent structure? Sartre took this line, drawing on Brentano and Husserl. These issues are beyond the scope of this article, but notice that these results of phenomenological analysis shape the characterization of the domain of study and the methodology appropriate to the domain. For awareness-of-experience is a defining trait of conscious experience, the trait that gives experience a first-person, lived character. It is that lived character of experience that allows a first-person perspective on the object of study, namely, experience, and that perspective is characteristic of the methodology of phenomenology.

    Conscious experience is the starting point of phenomenology, but experience shades off into less overtly conscious phenomena. As Husserl and others stressed, we are only vaguely aware of things in the margin or periphery of attention, and we are only implicitly aware of the wider horizon of things in the world around us.

    Moreover, as Heidegger stressed, in practical activities like walking along, or hammering a nail, or speaking our native tongue, we are not explicitly conscious of our habitual patterns of action. Furthermore, as psychoanalysts have stressed, much of our intentional mental activity is not conscious at all, but may become conscious in the process of therapy or interrogation, as we come to realize how we feel or think about something.

    We should allow, then, that the domain of phenomenology—our own experience—spreads out from conscious experience into semi-conscious and even unconscious mental activity, along with relevant background conditions implicitly invoked in our experience. These issues are subject to debate; the point here is to open the door to the question of where to draw the boundary of the domain of phenomenology.

    To begin an elementary exercise in phenomenology, consider some typical experiences one might have in everyday life, characterized in the first person:. Here are rudimentary characterizations of some familiar types of experience. Each sentence is a simple form of phenomenological description, articulating in everyday English the structure of the type of experience so described.

    The verb indicates the type of intentional activity described: perception, thought, imagination, etc. Of central importance is the way that objects of awareness are presented or intended in our experiences, especially, the way we see or conceive or think about objects. In effect, the object-phrase expresses the noema of the act described, that is, to the extent that language has appropriate expressive power. The overall form of the given sentence articulates the basic form of intentionality in the experience: subject-act-content-object.

    Rich phenomenological description or interpretation, as in Husserl, Merleau-Ponty et al. But such simple descriptions bring out the basic form of intentionality. As we interpret the phenomenological description further, we may assess the relevance of the context of experience. And we may turn to wider conditions of the possibility of that type of experience. In this way, in the practice of phenomenology, we classify, describe, interpret, and analyze structures of experiences in ways that answer to our own experience.

    In such interpretive-descriptive analyses of experience, we immediately observe that we are analyzing familiar forms of consciousness, conscious experience of or about this or that. Intentionality is thus the salient structure of our experience, and much of phenomenology proceeds as the study of different aspects of intentionality. Thus, we explore structures of the stream of consciousness, the enduring self, the embodied self, and bodily action.

    Furthermore, as we reflect on how these phenomena work, we turn to the analysis of relevant conditions that enable our experiences to occur as they do, and to represent or intend as they do. Phenomenology then leads into analyses of conditions of the possibility of intentionality, conditions involving motor skills and habits, background social practices, and often language, with its special place in human affairs.

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    The science of phenomena as distinct from being ontology. That division of any science which describes and classifies its phenomena. From the Greek phainomenon , appearance. In physics and philosophy of science, the term is used in the second sense, albeit only occasionally. In its root meaning, then, phenomenology is the study of phenomena : literally, appearances as opposed to reality.

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    Yet the discipline of phenomenology did not blossom until the 20th century and remains poorly understood in many circles of contemporary philosophy. What is that discipline? How did philosophy move from a root concept of phenomena to the discipline of phenomenology? Immanuel Kant used the term occasionally in various writings, as did Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

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