Early Days of Phenomenology

Sticky, drizzly and grey here in the heart of Dixie. I am struggling to get my courses off the ground. I so hate the first few days of class, those days where I am aware of myself, the students seem aware of themselves and we together struggle to turn our awareness to the material at hand. I like it when the material takes over and we all can forget ourselves in it, in a focused, teamworky way. As usual, I am finding the first days of Phenomenology particularly difficult. (If anyone out there has created some particularly graceful, hardly-disturbs-the-water dive into Phenomenology, I’d be most eager to know about it.) The trouble, as I see it, is that there are several different dimensions of difficulty and you need to make progress on them all, sorta simultaneously. There’s the Reduction, of course, but there is also the threat/problem of psychologism, and it is hard to see how to understand either of those aright without understanding the other–and, of course, there is the ubiquitous, term-long fight to distinguish Phenomenology from Phenomenalism, and that too is bound up with explanation of the Reduction and the threat/problem of psychologism.

At the moment, we are reading Frege–his review of Husserl’s book on arithmetic and his seminal “The Thought”. I use the distinctions among the Three Realms as a way of making progress on these topics (the Reduction, etc.), although the Realms have to be used dialectically, dropped after they’ve done their job, since they do not really quite work. The basic strategy is to distinguish the Realms and their denizens–physical objects, ideas and thoughts–and then to distinguish the intentional object of a particular case of perception from the intentio of that perception, pointing out that the intentional object is a denizen of the Outer Realm (a tree, say) and then asking whether the intentio seems more like a denizen of the Inner Realm (an idea) or like a denizen of the Third Realm (a thought). Now, the intentio strictly speaking seems misfit as a denizen of either, but considering it as a denizen of the Inner Realm helps the students to understand psychologism, and why it is a threat/problem for phenomenology, and considering it as a denizen of the Third Realm helps to make sense of the claim that what the Reduction discloses is something essential and, in some way, objective–or at least not subjective as ideas are subjective. The heart of the strategy is to get the students to begin really to struggle with the worry about whether what the Reduction discloses is something that is existentially mind-dependent (ideas) or not existentially mind-dependent (physical objects or thoughts), or whether there is some other way of trying to understand what is disclosed.

2 responses

  1. Kelly — you probably already know of it, but in case not, I highly recommend Dan Zahavi’s short book, /Husserl’s Phenomenology/. It’s a lucid and in my opinion very responsible introduction to some of the ideas/material you must be covering in class, and I’ve found it useful when introducing students to topics like the reduction and the threat of psychologism. Later in Zahavi’s book, there are also some very good nuanced discussions of the vexed issue of the role of constitution in Husserl’s system, and whether Husserl’s conception of constitution deserves to be called a form of idealism (as Levinas charged). Anyway, not sure if you want to assign any secondary readings to your students (you may just want them to work through the primary texts, which I’d understand), but if you’d be open to it, excerpts from Zahavi’s book could be useful. And as I said, it’s short.

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