the phenomenology of perception

Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger: On Defining Phenomenology


Hegel uses the term “phenomenology,” as do Husserl and Heidegger. But what does Hegel mean by “phenomenology?” How does it relate to 20th century phenomenology?

This seemingly simply question is by no means easy to answer. In Hegel’s Encyclopedia, Hegel divides Subjective Geist as follows:

Subjective Spirit is: (A) Immediate or implicit: a soul − the Spirit in Nature − the object treated by Anthropology. (B) Mediate or explicit: still as identical reflection into itself and into other things: mind in correlation or particularization: consciousness − the object treated by the Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit. © Mind/Spirit defining itself in itself, as an independent subject − the object treated by Psychology.

Full disclosure: I have not worked through Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, the third volume of his Encyclopedia, but it’s the only place I know where he offers something like a “definition” of phenomenology.

For Hegel, phenomenology treats “consciousness only as the appearance (phenomenon) of mind/spirit.”

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Deep down, I care for nothing in the world now but a few churches, two or three books, scarcely more paintings, and the light of the moon when the breeze of your youth brings me the fragrance of the flower beds that my old eyes can no longer distinguish.
Phenomenology and the “Crisis” of the Sciences

Husserl and Heidegger often speak of the sciences in “crisis.” Yet what does this mean? Why do they think the sciences are in crisis?

They’re actually referring to a debate taking place in Germany after the First World War. To understand this debate, we need some history.

Let’s start by talking about the German University model.

Beginning in 1810, the German University (designed by W. Humboldt) unified all of the faculties under the guidance of the philosophy department. Further, physics, biology, mathematics, and other sciences were all done in philosophy departments. The natural philosophers were fully informed of the major innovations by the great philosophers. Humboldt believed in a “unified wissenschaft” where all fields of study were unified into a body of knowledge. Philosophy, as the leader of the faculties, could provide this unity. Before WWI, only four universities in Germany had separate faculties for mathematics and physics. Anywhere else, you studied math and physics in the philosophy department. (the other majors, listed at the beginning of Faust, were law, medicine, and theology. Philology also becomes somewhat independent at some point).This changes after 1914, when a large amount of students seeking technical training and class mobility quadruple the student populations.

Simultaneous to this large increase, the humanistic model gradually becomes abandoned and the natural sciences and mathematics begin to take on a life of their own, independent of philosophy.

These changes in the structure of the university coincide with “crises.”

At the same time, there a number of “paradigm shifts.” Heidegger talks about these as “crises.” The most famous is the crisis in Newtonian mechanics caused first by relativity and then by quantum mechanics. The other crisis is the “crisis in the foundations of mathematics,” the problem that Husserl began his career working on (the debate was between formalism and intuitionalism). Biology experienced a similar debate, Heidegger mentions it in Being and Time (and devotes lectures to some of the problems in biology in 1930). 

These “crises in foundations” were seen to be the job of philosophers. Previously, philosophy had provided the basic research paradigms for (at least German) science.Heidegger and Husserl were worried that the fracturing of the sciences from Humboldt’s idea of a “unified Wissenschaft” to many diverse and unconnected specialized departments will fracture their unity. In 19th and early 20th century Germany, the big name philosophers would develop basic concepts for the sciences and then other natural philosophers would take these concepts and apply them to different areas of study.

The two major responses to the “crisis” of the humanities were Spengler’s Decline of the West and Weber’s Science as Vocation. Spengler, in Nietzschean fashion, sees the West as falling into decline and decay.Weber recognizes that everyone is looking for vocations from the university, so he argues that “research is a vocation/calling,” encouraging the new flood of students to pursue science as a career choice.

What’s the worry, then? 

Husserl and Heidegger are worried that science has become divorced from philosophy. This is what the essay “What is Metaphysics?” is about. They inquire into “beings as a whole, and nothing else.” But what is this nothing? (Of course by “this nothing,” Heidegger means “being itself”).So basically, you have: (1) Major changes in the organization of the faculties, moving towards specialization. (2) Major crises in the basic concepts of the sciences, seen as the job of philosophers.The worry, of course, is that the crises will never be solved, but the sciences will just take off on their own. Unified, systematic knowledge will be lost, and while philosophers will try to clean up the mess, no one will really care or notice.

Are these critiques relevant today?

Husserl died while people were still largely aware of the crisis. He was in conversation, for example, with a lot of analytic philosophers who saw logical analysis or positivism as a possible solution. (He actually gave his lecture on the Crisis of the European Sciences to the Vienna Circle). Heidegger, on the other hand, continued working until the late 1960’s. In the 1950’s, he begins to talk about cybernetics as taking over the role formerly played by philosophy. Previously, philosophy had determined the being of beings, providing a metaphysics for an epoch. Now, Heidegger argues, information technology plays this role. Instead of taking their guidance from “first philosophy,” the sciences simply try to represent data according to workable informational models as “data.” Heidegger says that scientists today have even become unconcerned about whether such models are “true” (in an absolute sense). Instead, they are looking to find a data model that works. Alongside cybernetics, Heidegger thinks that technology has replaced philosophy as the goal of the sciences. Previously, philosophy was considered “the mother of the sciences.” Now, technology and a technological way of thinking plays this role.

What can phenomenology do?

Phenomenology, for Husserl at least, tries to give a firm foundation for the sciences. For Heidegger, it goes back to “Being itself” to see what makes any foundation possible. It tries to think the source of all metaphysics, not to ground the sciences in a new metaphysics. You can have a consistent philosophy of science from phenomenology. Yet both Husserl and Heidegger see, say, physics, as operating in a different region of being than phenomenology. Phenomenology defines the objects of perception and physics works with these same objects, but not “as perceived,” rather “as mathematically represented." 

Could we do a phenomenological science?

Perhaps so. The basic goal of such research could be to always ground scientific concepts in direct experiences, to take things back to an experience of the things themselves.

Minimalism does announce a new interest in the body – again, not in the form of an anthropomorphic image or in the suggestion of an illusionist space of consciousness, but rather in the presence of its objects, unitary and symmetrical as they often are … just like people. And this implication of presence does lead to a new concern with perception, that is, to a new concern with the subject. Yet a problem emerges here too, for minimalism considers perception in phenomenological terms, as somehow before or outside history, language, sexuality, and power. In other words, it does not regard the subject as a sexed body positioned in a symbolic order any more than it regards the gallery or museum as an ideological apparatus. [But] to ask minimalism for a full critique of the subject may be anachronistic as well; it may be to read it too much in terms of subsequent art and theory …

“The Crux of Minimalism” from The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century by Hal Foster

The perception of other people and the intersubjective world is problematic only for adults. The child lives in a world which he unhesitatingly believes accessible to all around him. He has no awares of himself or of others as private subjectives, nor does he suspect that all of us, himself included, are limited to one certain point of view of the world. That is why he subjects neither his thoughts, in which he believes as they present themselves, to any sort of criticism. He has no knowledge of points of view. For him men are empty heads turned towards one single, self-evident world where everything takes place, even dreams, which are, he thinks, in his room, and even thinking, since it is not distinct from words.
—  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception