C for Consciousness


“To begin with, we put the proposition: pure phenomenology is the science of pure consciousness.”

Few terms in phenomenology are as complex as “consciousness”. In what follows we will attempt to introduce the reader to this complexity by offering a brief gloss on the above statement by the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).

The first word that warrants attention here is “science”. Husserl was a mathematician by formation, but early in his career he became conscious (!) of the limitations of the epistemology that was operative in the empirical sciences. He did not deny the legitimacy of this epistemology in so far as it goes, but was convinced that it did not go far enough. In other words he believed that there was much more to human knowledge than the empirical sciences were revealing. And so he undertook the monumental task of constructing a new, precise science (phenomenology) that would overcome these limitations.

In order to understand phenomenology we need to pay close attention to a second word in the above quotation: “begin”. Husserl was convinced that the empirical sciences begin far too late, taking for granted much that warrants critical examination. So phenomenology can be understood as a science that begins much earlier than the empirical sciences in that it puts into question what they tend to assume.

The most glaring assumption of the empirical sciences is consciousness itself. Busy trying to explain and manipulate the world they overlook the most profound question of all: how can a body be conscious? Husserl’s answer concerns primarily intentionality and temporality. Put (ridiculously) simply this means that if we did not have the ability to focus our attention in turn on different objects, while retaining our experience of these objects and while projecting ourselves into our future experience of these same objects, then the world would be an amorphous blob.

Husserl was perfectly well aware that most people, most of the time, do all this without thinking about it, they live in what he calls the “natural attitude” taking themselves, their bodies and the world for granted. Phenomenology is an invitation to slow down, open oneself (through the body that one is) to the world as it is and pose oneself the question about how to respond to this world. The objective of phenomenology is to at least partially and momentarily regain the quality of consciousness that a young child has when she glares, amazed, at a small stone.

p. Martin McKeever, CSsR

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