In my last brief intro to phenomenology, or the philosophical study of events and our processing and understanding, I set up just the main idea of what that strange long word was. In this post, I want to elaborate on the process of thinking through perception and how we come to any meaning. You may remember or go back to re-read how in the late 1800’s and the early to mid-1900’s the thought process of philosophy changed slightly from trying to prove that God exists (or doesn’t) or that our bodies are just figments of our imaginations. Ultimately, that proved futile for the early philosophers, and they were mostly, thankfully convinced of at least their own existence. God, however, is still up in the air among certain folks, and will probably always be due to the necessity of belief over certainty through provable fact.
When Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) laid out his thoughts on this new metaphysics (metaphysical means literally “beyond or after physics” and was a process that evaluated and questioned knowledge and the accumulation of knowledge) he did so under a stressor of grief. He had just lost a son.
He was a professor of philosophy in several places but settled in Freiburg in Breisgau, a university in southern Germany. During the first World War Husserl lost one of his sons, a very commonplace problem to have at that time, and one, as you can imagine that changed him as a person.
If you have been in my World Lit class where we talked about “All Quiet on the Western Front,” you will have been subjected to the sheer weight of numbers of dead and injured during the “war to end all wars.” The German Empire lost almost three million people. That was just about 4% of their entire population. Think about that for a second. If the United States lost 4% of our population that would be over 13 million. That would be just about the whole populations of New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Portland, and Seattle. The whole populations. This was not to count the more than 4 million wounded. This was devastating for the German people, and there was almost no house that was not affected by the destruction.
Through this intensity, Husserl, already a noted thinker, began his thought process that focused on events, or reaction to events. He focused on the events that happened all around him instead of thinking about our “beingness” and the other larger cosmological powers the soul may entail. Over time, the body became an anonymous and nonimportant thought experiment. It was a vessel that housed a mind and soul. The body and our place took less importance than the event, and the attention paid instead to how the body in unity with the mind influenced and perceived the specific event. This may seem a silly distinction. In fact, you may never have doubted the power of your body before. You may have grown up in a family or church that placed immense value on the body as a thing that is unique and powerful. However, this was not common before the 20th century.
Before the 20th and 21st centuries, our bodies were far worse off than they are now. They were wracked with diseases we now have vaccines for. Sixty was an old age. People were told that the body was an uncontrollable machine that got their soul into trouble and made them give into desires, they were also told that they were mainly owned by the state. the German idea of Fatherland (or the Russian Motherland) dictated that one should ignore their selfish desires for greatness or individuality, and instead sacrifice themselves for the country. The last example was what Husserl and other early 20th century thinkers were up against. It was an idea that was on the way out, but still influential (see: World War 2).
I want you to do another experiment with me. It is simple and will only take a moment. After reading this, I want you to close your eyes and focus everything you can on your senses. Not thinking about anything but trying to focus. When I do this, I begin to feel and hear differently. I begin to live through my body, not just within it. Reach out and touch something focusing not on what you are touching, but first what sensation you feel. How do your fingertips feel? I am grasping my coffee cup and without thinking about my obvious caffeine addiction or how I want more, but on what it felt to feel the warmth of the cup, how my fingertips tingled with the new stimulus and my nose began to register the latte even more than normal. Rather than the typical “the mug is soft and warm” answer, I focus on my contact.
This was a phenomenon that has meaning for me. Again, look at what you touched. My mug of coffee is indeed on the desk in my home office, in McMinnville, but that description does not include me (even though I am assumed present) instead, phenomenologically, Husserl would have included that the mug was to my left about two feet from my hand. Though I am not the center of the world here, I (and my sensations) am the center of my world as well as phenomena that happen to me happen in relation to me. I gauge things from my own body and not some anonymous empty space. Again, I want you to think about the next time you talk to a stranger, it could be a short conversation in a cue waiting for something (though as Americans, we are terrible about not talking to strangers in cue, even though it can be quite nice) or you could be meeting someone intentionally for the first time. I want you to think later about how you stood, how your voice wavered or changed depending on the person. If it is someone we are attracted to, our body changes and we stutter or we smile more or we get shy and turn red. All those things are perhaps unintentional mentally but are bodily reactions to phenomena.
Don’t worry if this is confusing. I will be elaborating on these concepts with future posts on Heidegger and Sartre/Beauvoir.
Husserl lived and taught in Germany all his professional life. He helped pupils like a young strange man called Martin Heidegger develop and change his philosophy, and taught many over his life that went back to their homes and other universities and turned phenomenology from a strange sounding series of ideas to a philosophy that we, today, are so used to that we don’t even think of them as a philosophy. Husserl changed the world from his small Bavarian university and made the individual important again. Like I said, we will talk more about phenomenology and its change to existentialism in the hands of the French, but, I am beyond my allotted space for this single post. Until next time.