Phenomenology – The Gateway to Existentialism 1

We come now to the part of the series where I branch out. By no means have we reached a proficiency of the ancients, or really covered their styles with any kind of flair or expertise, but I feel that we could spend the whole of this summer with them and still not cover it to my satisfaction. We will have to save the rest for actual class time. Today I want to begin the kind of philosophy that I really love.

Like I mentioned before, we will be spending some time jumping around and not doing anything in any particular order, but hit what I am interested in. If you want chronology, you can start your own blog. In the early twentieth century (modern times now) philosophers generally switched thought processes from a series of questions that tried to answer with certainty and definiteness that we know a certain aspect of existence actually is there and we do exist. There were many philosophers and theologians in the early catholic church who tried with all their might to deduce existence (small ‘c’ catholic denotes the whole body of Christians rather than the Roman Catholic Church as a specific body).

This may seem silly because you can look down and indeed see a body. At least, I do. I am not sure about you. But, it is not really silly when you consider that if you think about what your mind actually has the capability to create when it is called on to do so, it is not out of reason to wonder, as many of you probably have, that our minds could be creating existence and images and our corpus as well as the world around us. How can you be sure that what you see is the same thing I see? This was a real problem for early people with lots of money, smart brains, and too much time on their hands. Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) was one of the most famous thinkers who doubted his existence but came up with the famous cogito ergo sum, or, I think, therefore I am. He postulated that because he CAN doubt, at least his mind exists. He helped add on to generations of thinkers that were concerned not with events in the universe, or how we ought to live our lives, but whether we can trust our senses. This process was, for the most part, abandoned by twentieth-century thinkers who were more concerned with phenomena, or events, that took place in the world rather than a slightly more nebulous process mentioned above. I mean, in a sense, we seem to be certain of our existence, or at least our sentience, and if we can think, even if our life is some kind of bizarre virtual reality, it is, and that should be enough, right?

Leave it to the Germans to advance a new method of philosophy and give it a deceptively hard name. Phenomenology became the new thing through Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938) and his protege turned disappointment and Nazi sympathizer and snake, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976). First, let’s set the scene. In the turn of the century, everyone was enjoying more personal freedom in government and society, women are starting to have more natural rights granted to them and in certain places of Europe, race mattered little, and all colors were granted at least much the same place in society. What seemed to matter is how you drank or how you thought. Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds were prime examples of the drinking with the philosophers we will talk about in subsequent lessons and psychologists leading the world with new thought. This was the era of the development of psychoanalysis and the subconscious mind. What one could perceive and place meaning on became important rather than what exists and how. This was also the time period where science and medicine began evolving at a clipped pace. Faster and faster innovations were pumped out of the universities and the minds of thinkers in French cafes.

Phenomenology is the study of phenomena or simply, events. Intentionality (which has ontological as well as teleological implications, but for the phenomenologists as well as the existentialists, referred to consciousness and being conscious of your consciousness) meant that philosophy had entered the world of psychology and how we interact with the world around us, and more importantly, why is interaction important for you personally. I will write more in a later post digging into phenomenology, but for now, think about this:

How do you interpret experiences? Are you the type of person who sluffs off interactions with others and forgets what happens, or are you the type to analyze each exchange? Why is that? What do you focus on? If I were to chop down a tree in my backyard, how would I put importance on the life that I just ended, presuming it was a live tree and not a dead one? What about reading this? How do the words on your screen have any importance for you at all? How do you know? What events leading up to you reading made the words have meaning?

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