Phenomenological movement

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD075-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

1. Matrix and origins

Phenomenology began in the reflections of Edmund Husserl during the mid-1890s, but some find forerunners as far back as Plato and Aristotle. There are immediate anticipations in the work of four figures, not all of whom influenced all phenomenologists. In Essai sur les données immediates de la conscience (Time and Free Will) (1889), Henri Bergson offered a concrete and qualitative description of conscious life with an emphasis on how it flows and how abiding geometrized objects are constructed. He did not influence Husserl, but sits in the background for Roman Ingarden, KitarōNishida and French phenomenology. In Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt (Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint) (1874), Husserl’s teacher Franz Brentano urged the priority of a descriptive over an explanatory psychology of psychical phenomena, which he distinguished from physical phenomena by their Intentionalität (intentionality) or directedness at immanent contents. Husserl eventually opposed his teacher’s immanentism, denying that physical objects have an ‘inexistence’ in intentional acts; developed a richer classification of mental phenomena; and came to call his work phenomenology rather than descriptive psychology.

Wilhelm Dilthey similarly called for a descriptive psychology, held that it would be fundamental among the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), and described the construction of the historical world in such sciences. Husserl’s interest in these matters took some time to be recognized; the debt Martin Heidegger owed to Dilthey has been more easily appreciated. Finally, in Principles of Psychology (1890) William James was also concerned to describe what he called the stream of thought, including believing and willing, and his distinction between ‘the object of thought’ and ‘the topic of thought’ resembles that between ‘the object as it is intended’ and ‘the object that is intended’. James was read by Husserl and some later phenomenologists.

After studying mathematics and astronomy at Leipzig, pursuing mathematics at Berlin, and hearing Brentano lecture at Vienna, Husserl took his doctorate in mathematics at Vienna under Leo Königsberger. He then habilitated under Brentano’s disciple Carl Stumpf at Halle in 1887 and taught there as Privatdozent until 1901, when he became an Extraordinarius at Göttingen. He became Ordinarius at Freiburg in 1916, retired in 1928 and died in 1938.

Husserl’s Berlin teacher in mathematics, Carl Weierstraß, encouraged the quest for absolutely secure foundations within mathematics, but Husserl went beyond mathematics to seek grounds for all the sciences. His first work, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891), attempted to account for the concept of number by relating it, in the manner of Brentano’s psychology, to the mental operation of counting. This work in descriptive psychology was soon contested by Gottlob Frege as being psychologistic – psychologism being the doctrine, prominently defended by John Stuart Mill and his followers in Germany, that empirical psychology is the fundamental philosophical discipline and that because concepts and propositions are mental contents, logic is a branch of psychology and logical laws are empirical psychological laws. The myth later arose that Frege helped Husserl overcome his psychologism, but close study by J.N. Mohanty, Karl Schuhmann and others of correspondence and minor writings has shown that Husserl took this step in 1894 for other reasons.

Early in his second major work, Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) (1900–1) – the work that actually launched the phenomenological movement – Husserl contended that logic is not fundamentally an art based on the facts of mental life, but instead fundamentally contains ‘pure logic’ as a theoretical science of ideal logical forms that are not themselves parts of conscious life. Later in this work he then reflected on the correlative psychical processes in which logical forms are intended, provoking accusations of a relapse into psychologism from those for whom any reference to conscious processes is anathema. What Husserl’s less extreme anti-psychologism forbade was in fact the reduction of logical structures to real intentional processes.

The key doctrine in the latter part of the Investigations proposes that just as there can be fulfilment of empty intentions of sensuous objects, for example, when we see or hear the same matters as had merely been conceived of previously, there can also be fulfilment of empty categorial intentions by categorial intuition, that is, a non-sensuous seeing of how predication takes form. Propositional truth is accomplished when a formerly empty predicative judgment is brought into coincidence with a predicatively formed state of affairs. Husserl could then call for a return ‘zu den Sachen selbst’, best rendered as ‘to the matters themselves’, that is to say, a return from the blind manipulation of symbols to an insightful approach to the corresponding states of affairs, which include the matters themselves of concern to formal logic. This injunction was soon generalized beyond the theory of logic, formal ontology and the theory of parts and wholes to regions of all sorts; the phenomenological movement then ensued.

The four successively emerging, intercommunicating and sometimes overlapping tendencies within the phenomenological movement thus far all stem from the so-called ‘descriptive’ phenomenology of the first edition of the Logical Investigations.

Citing this article:
Embree, Lester. Matrix and origins. Phenomenological movement, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD075-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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