If one wants a thorough explanation of existentialism one must have some background in the less popularized field, phenomenology. For the most part, existentialism is a movement that developed out of phenomenology, but what is it? Developed in the early 20th century, phenomenology is (brace yourselves) the study of the structures of human consciousness from an individuals point of view. Sounds wild, doesn’t it? I can’t even begin to ease into this one so let’s just dive into the field right now with a little history. Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get to existentialism in a bit!
History of Phenomenology
While the word ‘phenomenology’ actually existed for quite some time before the 20th century, it’s definition didn’t have much permanence in philosophy. Occasionally it was thrown around by philosophers such as Kant and Fichte. They used the term to refer to the appearances of fundamental experience. Hegel even had a book named The Phenomenology of Spirit, using the word to represent “descriptive psychology.”
When Husserl arrived on the scene the field began to take shape and phenomenology’s definition became permanent. His mission was to discover the foundations in the structures of consciousness; these are called phenomena ( things we are conscious of). Husserl described phenomenology as based on action and free of metaphysics. In order to find these foundations, Husserl created something called the transcendental reduction, or as he called it, The Epoché.
The Phenomenological Method – The Epoché
Husserl’s Epochéwas designed to help us understand these structures of consciousness. It is done by bracketing out all preexisting notions of the external world. Husserl wants to start with a fresh pallet and to do that one must give up all of their assumptions. It shifts the center of thought away from “one’s experience” to “one’s world.” This results in consciousness in it’s purest form, so descriptions of phenomena can be made. He called this pure consciousness the Transcendental Ego. For Husserl, it’s all about our emotional and imaginative disposition toward objects, rather then their empirical value.
After Husserl, many new faces in phenomenology came on the scene. Unfortunately for Husserl, not many of them agreed with the Epoché. In fact, the new breed of phenomenologists were going to completely shift gears. Turning from Husserl’s question: “What are the foundations of consciousness?” to a new question, ” What is it like to be a human?” So, The existential phenomenologists arrived to discover universal conceptual features that are necessary for anything to be a human being. existential phenomenology not only bashes the Epoché, but eliminates the transcendental ego, claiming that such a thing does not exist.
Existentialism: Ethics? nope. Self? try again. Existence? I don’t know.
One thing that doesn’t change throughout phenomenology is their main motive. Description.
As outlined above, one important feature of existential phenomenology is that it never offers any ethical advice. These guys do not advocate any one system over another because that is simply not in their line of work. Most often, you will read an existential piece of work and feel as though they are pushing for a certain radical system of moral belief, but in reality they are simply describing just that, reality! They point out the ways in which we really act and the actual dispositions we have. A description of the existential conditions of human moral action. Some will try and study the ethics of these guys, but to do this mostly misses the point of their work.
Self is a concept that has been embedded into our minds, but some existentialist disagree. For them, self is a concept that has been created purely by the realization of other individuals. Our self is the result of looking at our own lives through the scope of another humans. It is how we judge our own actions and what creates one of the most fundamental aspects of the human condition, Anxiety! Jean-Paul Sartre gives an example of this when speaking of shame. Shame is an emotion that could only possibly be felt by the existence of someone else. If you were dancing naked in your room and no one walks in on you do you feel ashamed? Nope, only until another human being witnesses your actions does shame arise.
Existence is also an issue an existentialism, especially the existence of others. existentialist philosophers discuss the issues with something called solipsism. Solipsism is the belief that you are the only mind that exists and no one else. It seems ridiculous at first, but as Sartre talks about in Being and Nothingness, we can never really know for sure if other minds exist. There is no test, no experiment and no tool that indicates another thinking consciousness. Existence of others, like the self, is always assumed, but never proven.
I hope this short introduction into phenomenology and existentialism has offered some sufficient insight. These two topics are extremely vast and filled with a plethora of different, mostly opposing, ideas. Excuse my overuse of Sartre to explain these concepts. He is one existentialist I have studied more than others. Of course other Existentialists should not be overlooked. existentialist philosophers such as Martin Heideggar, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camu are completely worth your time. Nevertheless, existentialism and phenomenology deal with some of the most significant aspects of being, making it accessible to everyone, not just philosophers. Many existentialist authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Franz Kafka are worth reading, as their works accompany the philosophy and are great introductions and experiences of existentialism. Thanks for reading, and keep thinking!