Husserl’s phenomenology was successful, but not in the way he would have liked. Through his one time student and friend Martin Heidegger, it spawned existentialism, which, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus defined the post WWII generation. Yet Heidegger and Sartre rejected Husserl’s central idea, that of intentionality and their gloomy pessimistic outlooks differ from Husserl’s essentially idealistic one. In different ways they both abandoned what Husserl, borrowing from Kant, called the “transcendental ego.” What is that?
It is the “intender,” the “inner archer” shooting the arrows of perception, of whom we are usually unaware but the results of whose archery is the “world” we naively accept as “given” when we open our eyes. Husserl said that waking life of the conscious ego is a perceiving, and what he – we – perceive is the product of the intentionality of the transcendental ego. We accept this as the world, without being aware of the contribution our own consciousness makes to it. That is, we are unaware of perception’s essentially active character, caught in what Husserl calls the “natural standpoint.”
This has nothing to do with nature; it merely means our usual way of looking at and accepting the world as just “there,” that is, passively. Phenomenology for Husserl was a means of becoming aware of and participating in the active work of consciousness as it “intends” the world. He talked about it almost mystically, referring to the Mothers, from Faust and spoke of “the Keepers of the Keys of Being.” Mention of Faust reminds us that Goethe, too, developed a kind of phenomenology, what he called “active seeing,” and that he based his scientific work on plant morphology, optics, and evolution on the results of this kind of “dynamic perception.”
What Husserl meant by getting to “the Keepers of the Keys of Being,” may be understood by a remark by Colin Wilson, who created an “optimistic” existentialism based on Husserl’s intentionality. Wilson wrote that “there is a will to perceive as well as perceptions.” Wilson believed that mystical and “peak” experiences have much to do with the sort of intentionality Husserl explored, and that fundamentally our own consciousness has much more to do with the world we experience than we understand. He understood that if we change our perceptions, the world changes as well. Not many in the academic world would take Husserl this far, but the philosopher Paul Ricoeur thought along the same lines as Wilson, although he expresses himself in more abstract prose.
Ricoeur defines Husserl’s “natural standpoint” as “spontaneously believing that the world which is there is simply given.” But in correcting itself through Husserl’s “bracketing”, “consciousness discovers that it is itself giving, sense-giving.” Consciousness then carries on seeing, but “without being absorbed in this seeing, without being lost in it.” And here is the central point: “the very seeing itself is discovered as a doing, as a producing, once Husserl even says as a creating.” We would understand Husserl, Ricoeur says, if “the intentionality which culminates in seeing were recognised to be a creative vision.”
I don’t know what effect this remark of Ricoeur’s had in phenomenological circles, but what he says bears attention. Our acts of perception are creative acts. The world we see is not naively there, but is brought into being by our perceiving it. Our awareness is a “doing” not a “having,” and our business, if we are so inclined, is to become more aware of the doer, that is, our own transcendental ego, at work intending the world. This places an enormous responsibility on our consciousness, one we should have every intention to accept.
Henri Bortoft: The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way of Science, Edinburgh, UK: Floris Books 1996
Colin Wilson: The Strength To Dream, London: Sphere Books
Paul Ricoeur, in Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology, Evanston, Ill: North Western University Press, 2004.