Edmund Husserl & Phenomenology
Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) was the founder of the philosophical movement called ”phenomenology”, which was a method and philosophical outlook both rejected and embraced by his contemporaries and predecessors. The phenomenological method is at the heart of his philosophical legacy, having excercised an enormous influence on the development of continental philosophy, Husserl quickly became very renowned for his thoughts within movements such as existentialism, hermeneutics and deconstruction. Husserl also had a career in logic and mathematics, and his phenomenological method and outlook connect with analytical philosophy on many levels.
Husserl did not concive phenomenology right away, but gradually evolved it in various stages. In his early work Logical Investigations, Husserl coined the term descriptive psychology, which was the initial step towards a philosophical underlying unity. Husserl’s main concern with the term was that it described psychic experiences, which were characterized for their intentionality, thus enabling descriptive psychology to describe essential ”moments” of intentional experiences.
The descriptive psychology found its area of study through abstracting the psychological or psychic region from the world, in a similar manner as the natural sciences abstract the region of material nature from the world. Husserl could now describe experiences in relation to the contents noetic moments (their real contents), as well as also connecting his descriptions to the noematic (ir-real) moments of experience, in other words to their intentional content (objective content). Husserl thus needed a methodology to include these intentional moments of experience in the area of importance for the phenomenological investigation. Husserl’s solution became the transcendental-phenomenological reduction.
The transcendental-phenomenological reduction aims at directing the phenomenologist’s attention to the intentional relation between consciousness and its object, a correlation also concerning subjectivity and the phenomenon of the world. The phenomenologist sees phenomenology as a descriptive science, which seeks to pinpoint and correlate the essential moments and structures of the transcendental consciousness and its intentional experiences. It is of great importance that the phenomenologist [bracket] the world with the aid of the phenomenological reduction, because existence is not important when analysing phenomena during the early stages of the phenomenological method.
Phenomenology describes and categorises essential structures of intentionality and the required correlations between different experiences to the extent that these structures can be known through intuition. The analyses themselves are static and genetic; static meaning that a phenomenological abstraction is aimed at the temporality of experience. This means that static phenomenology identifies moments and structures belonging to a sort of nucleus of intentional experience and object. While the static phenomenology ‘leaves out time’, the genetic phenomenology return to the experiences in their complex temporality and tries to unfold the very origins of experiences in the temporal stream of consciousness.
The phenomenological method itself includes these main components:
1. The phenomenological reduction already mentioned above
2. The limitation, which is connected to a presupposition not to fall back on causal explanations, in order to describe the intentionality in given experiences
3. The eidetic reduction, which through eidetic variation reveals the essence, essential structures and experience
4. The eidetic intuition, in which the phenomenologist is given structures that the eidetic reduction revealed in an earlier stage of the phenomenological method
Husserl’s Letter to Hofmannstahl About Phenomenology and Art
In SITE Magazine 26-27.09 ISSN 1650-7894, Sven-Olov Wallenstein has translated a letter from Edmund Husserl to Hugo von Hofmannstahl, dated January 12th, 1907, Göttingen. The original letter is taken from Husserliana Dokumente, Briefwechsel, vol. VII, Wissenschaftlerkorrespondenz, (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1994), 133-36, and concerns both phenomenology and art. The editors of SITE acknowledges that – even though Husserl has been on a quest seeking the phenomenological origins of the sciences, the experiences and the world – phenomenology in its developed forms from Heidegger and Habermas, has had a certain fondness of aesthetic experiences which might have been lacking in Husserl’s outlook.
In the letter to Hofmannstahl 1907 – where Husserl had just discovered the main components and outlines for his phenomenological method – he acknowledges a similarity between the intuitive and pure phenomenology and pure art. Husserl has extensively covered concepts such as phantasy, image, consciousness and memory, however, these concepts also constitute links between phenomenology and developments in modern art.
Husserl starts off with thanking Hofmannstahl for a gift that he recived during an earlier visit to Husserl on December 6, 1906, and goes on to discuss phenomenology and art, thus revealing some aesthetic connections between a pure phenomenology and pure art.
Husserl recognizes that Hofmannstahl’s art pictures ”inner states” as purely aesthetic. in a sphere not of ”pictures” but of ”aesthetic beauty”. The aesthetic states are important for the phenomenologist because of the objectification. Husserl draws a parallell between his work of reaching a lucid sense of the basic problems of philosophy, and moving onwards towards a method for the solution of these basic problems.
The phenomenological method and attitude is for the phenomenologists to be concerned with all forms of objectivity that departs from what is ”natural” in a fundamental way. This Husserl says is ”closely related to the attitude and stance in which your art, as something purely aesthetic, places us with respect to the presented objects and the whole of the surrounding world”.
Similar to the phenomenological attitude, the intuition of a pure aesthetic object of art is ‘represented’ in an perspective devoid of existential influences of the intellect, because the presuppositions attached with emotions and the will are connected with the existential outlook. When standing near a work of art, the work places the phenomenologist in a state of aesthetic intuition, leaving the inuition empty of the existential attitudes. Husserl pinpoints the aesthetic pureness of a work of art in the following description: the more the existential world comes to attention, and the more a work of art brings out an existential attitude, then the work of art is less aestetically pure, Husserl concludes.
For the phenomenologists the mind has a natural and existential stance – actual life and things we stand before, are actual in sensous ways and realities as such. Our acts of mind and will are caught up in these existing actualities, which are included in the existential attitude of the mind. Husserl claims that the opposite side of this stance – the pure aesthetic intuition with its corresponding emotional situation – is also the opposite counterpart of the phenomenological attitude of the mind. Husserl writes that the only way in which the phenomenologist can solve philosophical problems, is through the phenomenological attitude and the phenomenological method. The only way in which the phenomenologist can examine the basic problems of phenomenology, is to suspend the existential attitudes, especially in the critique of knowledge.
As soon as our attitudes towards pre-given knowledge and pre-given being (towards the assumed reality and the sciences) have changed, we know that the fundamental question of knowledge has changed, and made it possible for the phenomenologist to conceive a knowledge through subjective experiences, which at the same time contain an in-itself existing objectivity. The phenomenologist can only solve basic problems of philosophy if being in the very same sphere as the philosophical problems and question all knowledge. No existence should be accepted as pre-given. All reality and all science thus become phenomena, and what remains is a pure intuition – with its abstractions and analyses – and meaning immanent in the phenomena. The phenomenologists do not have to go beyond phenomena, and they don’t pressupose transcendent existences intended in phenomena. The phenomenologist does not have to clarify what knowledge as such and objectivity means according to their own immanent essence.
Given that all knowledge is questionable, we are only left with the phenomena ‘knowledge’ and if the phenomenologist is to accept any other form of knowledge, then she has to return to the phenomenological attitude. What does validity mean? Phenomenology is concerned with the ”intuiting”, the ”evident” and ”insightful” forms of knowing, and this symbolic thought in relation to evident knowing, requires a phenomenological analysis of essences.
Aesthetic intuition in pure art is closely connected to the phenomenological intuiting, however, this should not be associated with any sort of aesthetic pleasure, due to the fact that phenomenology only considers the investigations and cognitive phenomena. The phenomenologist is not concerned with the sphere of art, but of the sphere of philosophy. The artist observes the world and gains knowledge of man and nature in a way which slightly relates to how the phenomenologist observes the world. The world is not observed through the natural attitude, nor through the practical observing of man. For the phenomenologists the world becomes but a phenomena, rendering all existence unimportant. The artist on the other hand, doesn’t try to find the ‘meaning’ of the phenomenon of the world and grasp its concepts, but intuitively appropriates when gathering matter, in order to create the aesthetic shapes and forms.
Husserl returns to a more informal and non lecturing way of writing by referring to himself as a ”hopeless and typical professor! He cannot even open his mouth, without giving a lecture”. Husserl means that both the philosophical essence of a lecture and academic freedom is that there is an absence of a demand for an answer, and hopes that Hofmannstahl doesn’t feel the need to respond in relation to Husserl’s ”lecture”. Husserl wishes Hofmannstahl his best, hoping that the world will find interest in his inner development and growth. Perhaps this was needed due to the fact that Husserl admits being reluctant to comment Hofmannstahl’s work: that Husserl’s praise and comments would be uninteresting for Hofmannstahl.
In the end of the letter Husserl describes the three golden rules for an artist: 1. ”He shall have genius”, otherwise ”he is not an artist”. 2. ”He shall follow, purely and solely, his daimonion, which, from within, drives him to an intuitingblind production”. 3. ”Everyone else knows better, thus he observes them all-in a purely aesthetic and phenomenological fashion”.
Phenomenology and the Possibility of a Pure Art – Sven-Olov Wallenstein Comments Husserl’s Letter to Hofmannstahl
Now what is the significance of art and aesthetics for philosophy, and in this case for phenomenology? From a german idealistic outlook, is art even an object of study with its own investigative sphere, that can be restricted in its own autonomy, or is the object of art in a dimension that goes beyond the philosophical sphere, something external to philosophy, and more intimate, ”close” and connected with the foundations of thought?
The first outlook is the one attached to a Husserlian sphere, focusing on the aesthetic object and its a priori conditions. The second outlook is linked with Heidegger’s dismissal of the concept of aesthetics, where he acknowledges that the work of art as an ”event”, requires that thought reconsiders its concepts and is directed back at the transformation of the entire concept of philosophy per se. This outlook also meant that it became of historical importance to return to the greeks, and especially Plato, since poetry was considered superior to philosophy.
The question of art in general and as an object of investigation within the phenomenological tradition, developed mainly in the hermeneutic and deconstructive branches of the continental branch of philosopy, however, Husserl himself has not written a lot about the same phenomenon in his own oeuvre, so to trace the concept of art in Heidegger, Sartre, Ricoeur, Merleau-Ponty and Gadamer back to Husserl’s thought, is a quite burdensome project.
Husserl did suggest that the phenomenological reduction – with its [bracketing] of existential matters – was favoured over the investigation of the aesthetic attitude and the sense of existential postulates. Sven-Olov Wallenstein writes that Husserl never considered the primacy of the theoretical attitude, however, the transcendental turn of phenomenology saw some attempts at to create a phenomenology of art, which lead Werner Ziegenfuss to write Die phänomenologische Ästhetik (1927), which is a phenomenological survey where he analysed artworks from a phenomenological point of view. Roman Ingarden also wrote an investigation named Das literarische Kunstwerk (1931), looking into the layers of signification in work of art within the lirerary genre. Finally, Mikel Dufrenne analysed the aesthetic experiences in Phénoménologie de l’expérience esthétique (1953). All in all, the phenomenological outlook seems to be fruitful when it comes to investigations connected with art.
The different forms of inquiry have not entirely been developed without each other, influences have been flowing through different traditions and outlooks, which has produced some hybrid forms of investigating aesthetics from a phenomenological perspective. Although phenomenological aesthetics is yet to be developed, it might have had a better chance of developing if hadn’t been inferior to the movement of contemporary art, which favours a more canonical approach rather than an analytical perspective. Is there a possibility of a phenomenological aesthetics?
Husserl’s own aesthetic points and ponderings are scattered within his oeuvre, however, he did discuss it extensivey in Phantasie, Bildbewusstsein, Erinnerung, attempting to examine phantasy with the phenomenological attitude. Husserl brings up the possibility of a demarcation between the phenomenological reduction and the reduction of art, and the volume ends with the letter to Hofmannstahl, which in its interity is rather brief, however, philosophically dense and important.
At the time of Husserl’s letter to Hofmannstahl, Husserl himself was busy at work in the development of the phenomenological reduction, which occupies a fundamental place in the evolution of his phenomenological method. Wallenstein sees Husserl’s unintrest in the aesthetic questions as a consequence of his general interest in Frege, mathematics and the philosophy of arithmetic. Husserl’s main concern in his early writings is to move away from psychologism and naturalism, attempting to secure the foundations of mathematics and logical principles. This meant that the study of the human and social sciences never interested Husserl in a major way.
Husserl later returns to the concepts phantasy and time, however, this work – like most projects in Husserls oeuvre – wasn’t finished during his lifetime. Aesthetic matter flow in the phenomenological sphere, though subordinated to image consciousness and phantasy. Husserl defines modes of representation (Vergegenwärtigung) which is opposite of the direct perception (presentation), and so Husserls examines those experiences of consciousness attached to art phenomena.
What is phantasy then? Is phantasy is a world of its own or is it a neutralisation of existential matters at hand? Phantasy is very important in phenomenology because phantasy is what opens up the field of essences. Compared with perception, memory and expectation, phantasy is an inventitive act rather than a positing one. The object of phanatasy is not lucidly given, yet it still right there close to the phenomenologist.
Wallenstein claims that Husserl returns to Kant for certain terminological reasons, and a few concepts that can be traced back to Kant are disinterestedness, purposelessness and play, which all are within the phantasy sphere. Another tricky concept that is attached to phantasy is freedom, as well as a kind of indeterminatedness. It has a subjective capacity as well as distinctiveness seperated from the external world. Is the object of phantasy possible? Or does phantasy constitute an object of its own? Husserl believes in the latter, thus phenomenology and the study of phantasy points towards the phenomenology of art, however, ”pure art” was never an object undergoing investigation for Husserl, as I understand it.
Coming from the image consciousness-side of the phenomenological perspective, Husserl tries to analyse the phenomena of the material art object, with its substratum and peculiarness. The phenomenologist ought to seperate the thing of art from the aesthetic object of art, where the aesthetic object has its special intentionality etc. So which object should the phenomenologist study?
The reciprocal relationship between ideality and materiality, is mediated by the image object, in this way the object becomes public given its materiality and private in terms of phantasy. Now, the point Husserl wants to make here is that there is the canvas which is the real existing object and physical image, the image subject that can be fictional, and the image object that which is perceived, even though it has no existence at all.
Cubism and Suprematism (Picasso, Braque, Malevich etc.) are mainly concerned with the analytical: to break up, re-arrange, displace, re-assemble and to experiment with geometrical forms. The phenomenological outlook becomes a tool for creation, strenghtening the artist’s activity almost as an analytic philosopher. Husserl’s own development of the phenomenological epoqué coincides with the syntheses found in Hofmannstahl’s art. Does the syntheses in Hofmannstahl point towards the same phenomena as the phenomenological reduction with its abstraction tends to uncover?
Cubism and Suprematism departed from the natural and the existential and focused on geomterical forms and more analytic concepts. These movements are linked to a similar counterpart which phenomenology also links to. Art has to be unattached from all influences of the mind and the will and in relation to this perspective, and Wallenstein brings up Husserl’s concern with the aesthetic purity of a work. According to Wallenstein, Husserl claims that the more of the existential matters that seep into the consciousness upon experiencing a work of art, the less aesthetically pure it is:
”whereas the world opened up by phenomenology and the epoche is a field of pure intuiting, a conversion that lays bare a new foundation for our epistemic, ethical, and aesthetic stances.”
If everything is questionable (Descartes) and incomprehensible, the phenomenologist has to place herself in the very same sphere as this foundation of uncertainty. Aesthetic intuiting is then close to phenomenological intuiting, and the aesthetic intuiting: the suspension of positings of value and existential matters, gives the phenomenologist certain clues about the phenomenological intuiting and what it means.
Husserl’s thoughts about the artist as genius (echo of Kant), that art doesn’t have to present its steps and procedures toward becoming art, brings forth the notion of the artist that doesn’t follow the world so to speak, but from a phenomenological point of view observes the world. The production of the artist can then be seen as a resemblance to the phenomenological attitude and intuiting, creating a possibility for the intertwining of pure art and phenomenology. Wallenstein concludes that other philosophers came to critique the modernist understanding of the pureness in art, however, they returned to other concepts in the development towards a phenomenology of art, such as temporality and kinaesthesia.
The development of a phenomenology of art is the very potential of a development of the concept of art per se, of the concept of pureness as well as of the intuitive artist. This is an enormous area of potential development within a movement, which after so many years still has a legitimate placement in the history of philosophy and of mankind.
I hope that you’ve been enjoying this article, although it might be filled with misinterpretations (be sure to let me know about them), I still hope that I have been able to introduce two of my favourite fields: the philosophical movement phenomenology and conceptual art. Please do not hesitate to comment this post.