The Science of Consciousness
By Gabriel Blanchard
Few schools of thought have proven as fruitful or varied as phenomenology.
Born in 1859 in the north of the Austrian Empire, Edmund Husserl would go on to radically alter the landscape of all western philosophy. He entered academia through the University of Leipzig, which was then approaching five hundred years old; he went on to study and teach at Berlin, Vienna, Halle-Wittenberg, Göttingen, and finally Freiburg. His students included Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, and St. Edith Stein. (Incidentally, while Husserl himself died the year before World War Two began, due to his Jewish background he had been increasingly sidelined by the same racist laws which brought about Stein’s death on this very date in 1942.)
Husserl founded a new school of thought—or family of schools—known today as phenomenology, the study of the structure of consciousness itself. His initial interest lay in logic and mathematics; from attempting to set down a psychological basis for mathematics, he moved on to a study of thought and experience more generally, eventually producing the two-volume Logical Investigations in 1900-1901.
Phenomenology is a difficult subject that tends to be jargon-heavy, but its roots lie in familiar terrain. When we look at something, such as a vase, we do not do so in a wholly abstract way. For instance, we do not (usually) say that we are seeing one side of a vase; we simply say that we see a vase. Moreover, a vase is something with a purpose, like holding flowers; intention and value are present, not of course in the molecules that make up the porcelain of the vase, but in the idea of a vase. The way we experience and think about the object involves something more and other than the stuff from which it is made—always supposing it is made of a stuff in the first place. Things like numbers, though we encounter them instantiated in stuff, are clearly not matter. As Dorothy Sayers put it in a different context, “We say we see six eggs. Certainly we see egg, egg, egg, egg, egg, egg in a variety of arrangements; but can we see ‘six’ apart from the eggs? No man hath seen an integer at any time.”
Like numbers, the fact that words can be “about” something is of interest to the phenomenologist. Vases and eggs are not, in themselves, “about” anything—they’re just there. But the names vase and egg have an “about” relation to the things they are naming. For that matter, there are words that exist solely to establish relationships among words and ideas, without any physical referent: no object corresponds to words like the or when—or or!
Husserl’s aim in all this was to establish principles by which to study the subjective experience of consciousness. In some ways, phenomenology is thus akin to Existentialism. Without excluding reason, he sought to include subjective and relational elements in this study as well, since consciousness is literally and necessarily subjective and every consciousness exists in a relational context (if nothing else, we all have parents); no study of consciousness could really be conducted if it excluded fundamental aspects of its own subject matter. This has turned many of Husserl’s successors to analyze things like empathy and communication, under the heading of intersubjectivity. In an amusing twist, it is precisely intersubjectivity that establishes concepts like objectivity in the first place: what we call “objective truth” can only be established by agreement among subjective minds (simply because minds are always subjects).
We have hardly scratched the surface of Husserl’s thought, of course. Other writers have taken phenomenology in other directions: Heidegger turned from the general study of consciousness to aspects of human personhood like loneliness and mortality; Maurice Merleau-Ponty took more of an interest in engaging with neuroscience and psychology, as distinct from the mostly a priori approach of Husserl; Jacques Derrida developed his interest in the non-rational aspects of subjectivity and the linguistic technique of deconstruction; Pope St. John Paul II‘s seminal work Theology of the Body applied phenomenological principles to questions of what it means to have, or be, a body as well as a mind. In a multitude of fields, under the hands of widely different gardeners, phenomenology continues to grow, change, and blossom.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these pieces on the ideas of custom and convention, matter, or memory and imagination. Or pick up some additions to your reading list from our Anchored interview with Dr. Cornel West.