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Phenomenology: Bracketing Experience

Late in the nineteenth century, a group of Austrian philosophers grew dissatisfied with the excessive subjectivity fostered by the philosophy of the later German idealists. Borrowing their methods from the emerging sciences of psychology and sociology, these phenomenologists sought to restore a proper balance by securing the objectivity of experiential content at all costs.


The basic approach of phenomenology was first developed by Franz Brentano, who was influenced both by scholastic versions of Aristotelian thought and by the radical empiricism of Hume. The central concern of philosophy, Brentano supposed, is to understand the nature and content of awareness in ways that illuminate the distinction between the mental and the non-mental.

In Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt (Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint) (1874) Brentano proposed that every mental act be understood to have a doubly significant representational function, designating both itself reflectively and a phenomenal object intentionally. Indeed, this distinction between acts and their objects precisely delineates the crucial distinction for Brentano, since "intentionality is the mark of the mental." One and the same phenomenal object can be intended by mental acts of different modalities—believing, imagining, etc. Thus, Brentano held that although each intentional act is itself subjective, its intention is an objective thing or fact in the world.

Brentano applied a similar set of distinctions with respect to moral theory in Vom Ursprung sittlicher Erkenntnis (The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong) (1889). Although our emotional attitudes about human behavior are thoroughly subjective, the particular human actions they intend are objective features of the world, which sometimes carry self-evident value in the same way that other right judgments do.


Brentano's emphasis on the objectivity of intentional objects gives rise to a serious question about our ability to think about non-existent objects. If "the golden mountain" does not exist, what feature of reality preserves the objectivity of our intention? Alexius Meinong tried to provide a systematic answer to such questions by introducing a third element that mediates between a mental act and its object, the content of the act (rather like Frege's sense). Extrapolating from this idea, Meinong distinguished several levels of reality among objects and facts about them in Über Möglichkeit und Wahrscheinlichkeit (On Possibility and Probability) (1915):

Although Meinong's scheme successfully guarantees the objective reality of intentional objects of every sort, its ontological cost is high. The world according to Meinong is crowded with false facts and non-existent realities. It was (at least partly) in reaction to such a lush landscape that Russell and Quine later developed more parsimonious notions about what is.


Another of Brentano's students, Edmund Husserl, developed the phenomenological method in a less formal vein. In his Logische Untersuchungen (Logical Investigations) (1901, 1913) and Meditations Cartésiennes (Cartesian Meditations) (1931), Husserl aimed for a science of pure abstract thought that arrives at truth about the atemporal essenses of things. From our experience of the phenomena, Husserl supposed, we must somehow intuit the genuine, lasting character of what most truly persists through all. Thus, although human consciousness remains supremely important as the unique source of our knowledge, our goal must always be to transcend the temporal limitations of ordinary experience in order to fathom the timeless reality that underlies it. It was this version of phenomenology that most significantly influenced the philosophy of Heidegger.

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