1.1. The lives and deaths of phenomenology
Since its official and self-proclaimed birth in Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations, published at the very beginning of the 20th century, phenomenology has been following such different paths and has undergone so many transformations that one would hardly be able to provide a harmoniously unified account of its history. Born from an original attempt to combine the resources of Brentano’s psychology with the logical expectations inherited from Bolzano’s philosophy, phenomenology has taken many faces and endorsed substantially different philosophical claims all throughout the 20th century. As Hans-Georg Gadamer came to reflect on his relation with the other members of the phenomenological tradition he had met since he was Martin Heidegger’s student, he relates that “each phenomenologist had their own understanding of what phenomenology was really about” (Gadamer 1987, 116).
But Gadamer also adds an important remark, as he immediately notes: “Only one thing remained clear, which is that the phenomenological method could not be learnt from books”. Indeed, the most basic and least controversial conception of phenomenology that can be provided is that it consists in a radical way of dealing with philosophical questions, which takes philosophy as a descriptive practice rather than a systematic approach to knowledge. While philosophical systems can be suspected to rely on interpretations unable to critically interrogate the validity of the concepts they project onto reality, phenomenology as a practical description of the specific ways in which phenomena appear or manifest themselves seeks to avoid all misconstructions and impositions placed on experience in advance. This practical aspect of phenomenological description is characteristic of its own original philosophical ‘style’, and constitutes a fundamental aspect of phenomenology throughout the historical development of this philosophical tradition, pointed out by Heidegger as he declares that phenomenology cannot be learnt “through the reading of phenomenological literature” (Heidegger 1992, 9). The most compelling evidence of this practical dimension of phenomenological philosophy is perhaps the strong lack of interest in publication manifested by Edmund Husserl himself, the undisputed founding father of phenomenological philosophy, who proved to be particularly reluctant to publish the results of his ongoing research, while he considered his lectures and his daily writing activity as quintessential to the new kind of philosophy to which he gave rise.
Husserl himself first considered phenomenology as a wide philosophical project that would not only require his absolute dedication, but also the continuing efforts of his community of students, extending phenomenology in directions that a single and isolated philosopher would not be able to explore. However, Husserl soon realized that the paths followed by his best students (in particular Martin Heidegger and Max Scheler) were leading them to philosophical positions in which Husserl would not readily recognize the results of his own methodology, and he came subsequently – though not without experiencing some bitter disappointment – to see himself more and more as a lone and secluded ‘leader without followers’ (Hua-Dok III/2, 182), eventually considering himself ironically “the greatest enemy [Feind] to the famous ‘Husserlian phenomenological movement’”(Hua-Dok III/9, 79). Such considerations allowed French phenomenologist Paul Ricœur to declare that the history of phenomenology broadly construed must include, in addition to Husserl’s works, the long and complex history of Husserlian heresies (Ricoeur 1986, 9).
However, insofar as phenomenology, whether ‘orthodox’ or ‘heretic’, is based on a descriptive practice that aims at displaying the structures of experience, constantly attempting to define its own rules and to extend its scope, one should not underestimate the strength and depth of the philosophical commitments shared by the members of the phenomenological tradition, in spite of the variety of their methods and goals. As Emmanuel Levinas notes in his remarks on the phenomenological ‘technique’, “phenomenology unites philosophers” and does not do so because of a certain number of fundamental theses that phenomenologists would be committed to and would need to uncritically accept, but only because of “a way of proceeding that [phenomenologists] have in common”. Instead of being bound to the main theses and principles formulated by Husserl, phenomenologists “agree on approaching questions in a certain way” (Levinas 1998, 91). The philosophical commitment to experience that they share unites the members of the phenomenological movement in a way loose enough to let them spread their wings and to embrace Husserl’s famous claim to bring philosophy “back to the things themselves” without being prevented from opening new paths and discovering original ways of accounting for the richness of lived experience.
Consequently, rather than a school of thought, phenomenology needs to be understood as a broader philosophical movement (Dastur 2004, 208), whose nature essentially involves its transformations and constant redefinitions. Comparing the phenomenological movement to a river giving rise to various different streams, Spiegelberg emphasizes several characteristic features of the phenomenological tradition, which sprang from a common source but gave birth to several parallel currents that do not necessarily join in their final destination, and which is fundamentally characterized by its intrinsic dynamics and its moving and exploratory dimension (Spiegelberg 1965, 2). Spiegelberg’s metaphor stresses that, far from jeopardizing the unity and coherence of the movement, the plurality of these currents demonstrates the vitality of the phenomenological tradition, as long as the different currents do not annihilate but complement each other. The purpose of this chapter is to draw a cartography of the phenomenological movement that presents the dynamic specific to each of its main currents as well as their systematic and historical relation to each other.
In order to provide a general overview of the phenomenological tradition, this chapter will stress the constitutive role of the successive shifts that contributed to transforming the methods and redefining the scope of phenomenology throughout its historical development, manifesting an ever-reiterated attempt to recast the limits of phenomenological description (either by narrowing down or extending its boundaries) and overcome its shortcomings. Not only did these shifts take a significant part in the development of the phenomenological movement, but they mostly established phenomenology as a philosophical tradition of its own by constantly interrogating its legitimacy as a method and questioning its intellectual heritage. Accordingly, the two main assignments of this overview and the outline of this chapter will be the following: first, presenting the philosophical framework within which the ‘breakthrough of a newly grounded philosophy’, namely phenomenology, was made possible, and analysing the fundamental features that characterize this philosophical breakthrough (Section 1.2.); second, examining the different shifts that contributed to renewing the meaning and scope of phenomenology and constituted it as the tradition of thought that became the cornerstone of continental philosophy throughout the 20th century (Section 1.3.).
1.2. The birth of phenomenology and its foundation as a philosophical method
1.2.1. Phenomenology and descriptive psychology (from Brentano to Husserl)
The word ‘phenomenology’ has a long history that goes back through Hegel and Kant to the philosophy of Lambert.1
However, it was used in the second part of the 19th century in an intellectual context that was particularly far from the roots of German idealism, and in the wake of an attempt to bring the empirical psychology inherited from the British tradition to a higher form of completion and to give psychology its autonomy and significance with respect to other sciences. The word ‘phenomenology’, in this context, became associated with the work and school of Franz Brentano, who published his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint
in 1874 and who appeared as the leading figure of this renewal of psychology as he attempted to provide it with its own criteria of scientific legitimacy. If it is not directly from Brentano that Edmund Husserl borrowed the word ‘phenomenology’, it is nevertheless in Brentano’s descriptive psychology that the term must find its conceptual origin.
The originality and novelty of Brentano’s psychology arises from the unexpected marriage between, on the one hand, his strong Aristotelian and neo-scholastic influence and, on the other hand, his original attempt to define a form of scientific inquiry especially suited for the description of psychological phenomena. In his 1874 Psychology, Brentano establishes a strong division between psychological or ‘mental’ phenomena (Psychische Phänomene) on the one hand and physical phenomena on the other, arguing that physiological explanations cannot account satisfyingly for the ontological specificity of the former. The famous ‘intentionality thesis’, widely regarded as Brentano’s most substantial contribution to philosophy, addresses this need to keep physical and mental phenomena strictly separated by providing a criterium of the latter that the former are unable to match. Mental phenomena, Brentano writes, are directed towards an object in a specific way that cannot be described as a physical relation between two different things. The object towards which a mental phenomenon is oriented is not a transcendent but an immanent object, an object that exists first and foremost within this mental phenomenon rather than an external object whose existence would be logically independent of any kind of mental activity. Being irreducible to a physical relation, this form of inclusion of the object within the mental phenomenon that is directed towards it is to be characterized as ‘intentional’, according to the scholastic terminology.
Every mental phenomenon, Brentano famously writes, is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) in-existence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity.
(Brentano 1924, 124/68)
This intentional property of mental phenomena allows Brentano to stress their irreducibility, insofar as the intentional in-existence constitutes an exclusive characteristic of mental phenomena, making intentionality the key to the definition of psychology’s scientific autonomy: the intentional relation between the act of perceiving and the object perceived is of a totally different kind than the causal relation between the physical object external to the mental phenomenon and the eyeball. This exclusive intentional character justifies Brentano’s claim that mental phenomena require their own scientific treatment, grounded in a methodological approach that acknowledges their irreducibility to physical phenomena. While causal explanations of physical phenomena constitute the scientific framework of physiological approaches to the mental falling under the jurisdiction of genetic psychology, the study of the intentional character of mental phenomena demands a specific method, which would, a few years later, be labelled ‘Psychognosie’ in Brentano’s lectures in Vienna. Drawing on Lotze’s distinction between ‘genetic’ and ‘descriptive’ science (Milkov 2018), Brentano stresses the strictly descriptive and analytic character of t...