Universitas, Number 9, September 2001

Phenomenology and Philosophy

dgboland © 2001

"Is it possible, as the Pope seems to try and do, to reconcile Thomism with phenomenology?" is a question that has recently been put to us. It would be useful first of all to define the terms of the question. As we may presume that most of our readers will have a pretty good idea of what Thomism is, the task of definition principally relates to the word "Phenomenology". As most would be aware, it is the name for a philosophical movement that owes its origin to Edmund Husserl. It came to prominence in the early part of the last century and has had profound influence on the whole range of contemporary thought. It is obviously a movement of some significance even today.

So as not to be accused of colouring our definition of it, let us take over for this purpose, without necessarily accepting what is said in it, one of the many descriptions of Phenomenology that can be found simply by searching the internet.


"Phenomenology, 20th-century philosophical movement dedicated to describing the structures of experience as they present themselves to consciousness, without recourse to theory, deduction, or assumptions from other disciplines such as the natural sciences."


The founder of phenomenology, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, introduced the term in his book Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1913; trans. 1931). Early followers of Husserl such as the German philosopher Max Scheler, influenced by his previous book, Logical Investigations (1900-1; trans. 1970), claimed that the task of phenomenology is to study essences, such as the essence of emotions. Although Husserl himself never gave up his early interest in essences, he later held that only the essences of certain special conscious structures are the proper object of phenomenology. As formulated by Husserl after 1910, phenomenology is the study of the structures of consciousness that enable consciousness to refer to objects outside itself. This study requires reflection on the content of the mind to the exclusion of everything else. Husserl called this type of reflection the phenomenological reduction. Because the mind can be directed toward nonexistent as well as real objects, Husserl noted that phenomenological reflection does not presuppose that anything exists, but rather amounts to a "bracketing of existence," that is, setting aside the question of the real existence of the contemplated object.

What Husserl discovered when he contemplated the content of his mind were such acts as remembering, desiring, and perceiving and the abstract content of these acts, which Husserl called meanings. These meanings, he claimed, enabled an act to be directed toward an object under a certain aspect; and such directedness, called intentionality, he held to be the essence of consciousness. Transcendental phenomenology, according to Husserl, was the study of the basic components of the meanings that make intentionality possible. Later, in Cartesian Meditations (1931; trans. 1960), he introduced genetic phenomenology, which he defined as the study of how these meanings are built up in the course of experience.


All phenomenologists follow Husserl in attempting to use pure description. Thus, they all subscribe to Husserl's slogan "To the things themselves." They differ among themselves, however, as to whether the phenomenological reduction can be performed, and as to what is manifest to the philosopher giving a pure description of experience. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Husserl's colleague and most brilliant critic, claimed that phenomenology should make manifest what is hidden in ordinary, everyday experience. He thus attempted in Being and Time (1927; trans. 1962) to describe what he called the structure of everydayness, or being-in-the-world, which he found to be an interconnected system of equipment, social roles, and purposes.

Because, for Heidegger, one is what one does in the world, a phenomenological reduction to one's own private experience is impossible; and because human action consists of a direct grasp of objects, it is not necessary to posit a special mental entity called a meaning to account for intentionality. For Heidegger, being thrown into the world among things in the act of realizing projects is a more fundamental kind of intentionality than that revealed in merely staring at or thinking about objects, and it is this more fundamental intentionality that makes possible the directness analyzed by Husserl.

French Phenomenology

The French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre attempted to adapt Heidegger's phenomenology to the philosophy of consciousness, thereby in effect returning to Husserl. He agreed with Husserl that consciousness is always directed at objects but criticized his claim that such directedness is possible only by means of special mental entities called meanings. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty rejected Sartre's view that phenomenological description reveals human beings to be pure, isolated, and free consciousnesses. He stressed the role of the active, involved body in all human knowledge, thus generalizing Heidegger's insights to include the analysis of perception. Like Heidegger and Sartre, Merleau-Ponty is an existential phenomenologist, in that he denies the possibility of bracketing existence. See EXISTENTIALISM. Phenomenology has had a pervasive influence on 20th-century thought. Phenomenological versions of theology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, and literary criticism have been developed, and phenomenology remains one of the most important schools of contemporary philosophy."

As may be seen from this short description, Husserl's original concept has taken flesh, as it were, in a variety of ways, some of which are hardly compatible with each other. What will be noted, for instance, is the curious way in which Husserl's intentional urge to go "back to the things themselves" originally is expressed in terms of essences and pure intelligibility but ends up, via Heidegger and Sartre, concentrating on pure existence and the absurdity of the human condition. We have to be careful, then, to distinguish Phenomenology from some of its offshoots. The effort to be completely authentic in our thinking can sometimes result in a kind of mental exhaustion.

Fortunately, Husserl himself has left us a description of what he was trying to do in the Inaugural Lecture he gave on the occasion of his taking up a professorship at Freiburg im Breisgau in 1917. The lecture is entitled Pure Phenomenology, Its Method and Its Field of Investigation. Though his thought may have undergone some change of perspective after that it can be taken as representing his basic position. How thoroughgoing his project was may be gathered from his opening words:

"A new fundamental science, pure phenomenology, has developed within philosophy: This is a science of a thoroughly new type and endless scope. It is inferior in methodological rigor to none of the modern sciences. All philosophical disciplines are rooted in pure phenomenology, through whose development, and through it alone, they obtain their proper force. Philosophy is possible as a rigorous science at all only through pure phenomenology. It is of pure phenomenology I wish to speak: the intrinsic nature of its method and its subject matter that is invisible to naturally oriented points of view."

Focused as it is on the objects of consciousness, phenomenology can best be appreciated by contrasting it with scientific psychology. Thus Husserl goes on to say: "The ideal of a pure phenomenology will be perfected only by answering this question; pure phenomenology is to be separated sharply from psychology at large and, specifically, from the descriptive psychology of the phenomena of consciousness. Only with this separation does the centuries-old conflict over "psychologism" reach its final conclusion. The conflict is over nothing less than the true philosophical method and the foundation of any philosophy as pure and strict science."

Generally, Husserl is part of a movement at the end of the nineteenth century to transcend the limitations of the materialist/empiricist approach to science and philosophy. It is the expression of a desire, as he puts it, to return to the investigation of the things themselves, rather than examining only their material conditions, extrinsic causes etc. In Aristotelian terms, the philosophers especially had been starved of knowledge of forms. They had been concentrating on finding out everything about things except what they are intrinsically.

Interestingly enough, though in some respects a return to traditional scholastic concerns and aristotelian methodology, the new movement has tended to retain the language of empiricism. Thus, "We are the true positivists", Husserl says in 1913 in his "Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy". Experience is not to be arbitrarily limited to sense data but extends to all objects that present themselves to our consciousness. This adaptation of terminology does have a positive effect. For it highlights the actuality and vividness of our awareness of the intelligible world. The sense of wonder and mystery that ought to mark our endeavours to understand reality seemed to have gotten lost in the over-concentration on the reductive analysis of the empiricists and the positivists, on the one hand, and the logical constructions of the rationalists and the idealists, on the other.

The very word phenomenon is taken from the heart of empiricism and given a new meaning. There is a world of difference between the phenomenalism of Hume and the phenomenology of Husserl. A return to things themselves beyond their superficial appearances has been signaled by the new approach of phenomenology. The use of his opponents' terminology by Husserl is somewhat disconcerting and naturally casts suspicion on his project in the minds of some Thomists. But many of the insights of Phenomenology, properly interpreted, can in my view be reconciled with Thomism. Like it or not, too, it may be that we have a better chance of getting the philosophy of St. Thomas across in a language that is familiar to modern ears than in the traditional scholastic terminology. This to me appears the clue to the present Pope's "leaning towards Phenomenology".

Nonetheless, there remain problems with accommodating Husserl's thought to Thomism. It seems that he never quite resolved the issue of Realism versus Idealism within his new system of thought. Though he rightly recognised that this issue was to some extent a false antithesis, and that the fundamental reality of the objects of our experience is not an issue that confronts our consciousness, his language does lend itself in certain cases to an immanentist interpretation. Thus, he says, in his lecture:

"To begin with, we put the proposition: pure phenomenology is the science of pure consciousness. This means that pure phenomenology draws upon pure reflection exclusively, and pure reflection excludes, as such, every type of external experience and therefore precludes any co-positing of objects alien to consciousness….. Consciousness is taken purely as it intrinsically is with its own intrinsic constituents, and no being that transcends consciousness is co-posited ".

He likens his project to that of Descartes. "The so-called phenomenological reduction can be effected by modifying Descartes's method, by carrying it through purely and consequentially while disregarding all Cartesian aims; phenomenological reduction is the method for effecting radical purification of the phenomenological field of consciousness from all obtrusions from Objective actualities and for keeping it pure of them…. The actuality of all of material Nature is therefore kept out of action and that of all corporeality along with it, including the actuality of my body, the body of the cognizing subject."

Nonetheless, the return "to the things themselves", as a rejection of Idealism, is the basis of his thought. It remains to consider whether and how his project can be interpreted in realistic terms. I believe that what he was attempting can be explained in a manner compatible with thomistic philosophy. It is significant that Husserl speaks in terms of bracketing of existence when we wish to consider the very object of consciousness in itself. For St. Thomas says something like this, in De Ente et Essentia (On Being and Essence).

He distinguishes two ways in which we can consider the essence of a thing. The first way is to consider it is according to its proper notion, or absolutely. In the second way we can consider the essence as it has existence in this and that. Looking at the essence in this second way brings into play considerations pertaining to the conditions of existence of the essence, whether it exists in the real or in mind. It is the essence, e.g. of man, considered in the first way that is said first of all of anything, e.g. of Socrates. It seems to me that this is the consideration that Husserl is trying to rescue from those philosophies that blindly immerse themselves in the material and accidental existence of things, like someone feeling his way around with his eyes shut. Those who close themselves in upon the world of essences considered solely according to their logical existence in the mind, such as the Idealists, are equally blind to what is staring them in the face.

The essence absolutely considered does not include existence, but, as St. Thomas is careful to note, neither does it exclude it. Husserl, too, was not concerned to deny the actual existence of the real world, but sought simply to focus on the sense of the world that everyone is aware of as actually existing. In thomistic terminology, the first objects of the intellect are the intelligible principles of things, their substantial rationes, natures, essences. But we know that there is more to the things examined than that. By conversion to the phantasm, i.e. the concrete image of the imagination, the intellect is able to rejoin this abstract concept to the accidentals that belong to its individual existence. Thus, we not only understand what Socrates is, a man, but also that he is a white man. Linked integrally with our sense awareness, our intellect also grasps things in their actual existence. Thus, in his time, Plato, when awake, could say that his friend Socrates actually exists. We are using Aristotle's theory of knowledge here, not Plato's.

The realism of knowledge, therefore, becomes a problem for the modern mind because of the loss of the distinction made by St. Thomas. The fact that our concepts, according to an absolute consideration, do not posit the existence of the things understood does not mean that we have no way of knowing if such things exist. It is a consideration only, necessary because of the abstract nature of our intellectual knowledge. That does not preclude the consideration of those same things, according to the way they actually exist, firstly in the material world in which we live (as individuals), and secondly, in the spiritual world of our minds (as universals).

The return to things in themselves that Husserl is concerned with is the same as the consideration of the intrinsic principles of things of Thomistic philosophy. It presupposes the original "co-positing" of the existence of things. For one cannot consider the real essences of things that do not exist. But the consideration of such essences absolutely or "purely" abstracts from the conditions of their existence. So the problems within Phenomenology, both for Husserl himself and for his followers, are not about the realism or idealism of the objects of consciousness. They are primarily focused on how to understand the essences simply considered. Because the essences of things in our world are not simple but complex misunderstandings can arise as to what is the nature of man, for instance, even when considered absolutely in itself or, in Husserl's language, as a pure phenomenon. It is divergence of understandings in this regard that differentiates the various positions taken by his followers. The change of focus, though an advance in philosophical terms, does not automatically simplify things. So we see mirrored in Phenomenology, as it were, the spectrum of positions that can be, and historically have been, taken with regard to the nature of being generally and of man in particular.

The language of this discussion has become quite exotic. For "old" ideas, such as essences, and the corresponding philosophical sciences, such as Ontology, have been resurrected and dressed in a new terminology that contains elements of the old terminology as well. At the same time, the consideration of things according to the conditions of their existence, and particularly the human "thing" according to its human existence, have been given interpretations that, on the one hand allow for the spiritual dimension, and on the other hand do not. It is not surprising that the latter should end up in absurdity.

We can, therefore, "take on board" to some extent the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl. So too can we accept the use of it made by one of his close associates who at the same time was a wonderful witness to the Faith, namely Blessed Edith Stein. But its use by such as Heidegger and Sartre is another matter. The direction it has taken from their thought has been towards a humanism that quite readily converts into atheism. That does not mean to say that they do not have valuable particular insights into the human condition.

However, an adequate treatment of their positions is beyond the scope of this article. Neither do I presume to comment upon the Pope's personal philosophy, as that would require a more complete knowledge of his mind than I have. I have no worries about its perfect harmony with the thought of St. Thomas. Nor would I be concerned if in some respects he makes use of the language of phenomenology.

* Quotations from the English translation of the lecture are taken from the Internet resource on Husserl maintained by Dr. Scott Moore, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, U.S.A.

dgboland © 2001

Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
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