Consciousness in Phenomenology

views updated


For Edmund Husserl, the two basic features of consciousness are intentionality and temporality. Intentionality means that all consciousness is directed to some object. The thesis that consciousness is temporal means not only that all conscious states have a temporal location but that each of them has within itself a temporal structure and that the temporal structure of consciousness is the basis for all other determinations of consciousness and its objects.

Husserl's philosophical method proceeds through an analysis of conscious life. However, because all consciousness is intentional, the analysis of the forms and structures of various kinds of consciousness (including volitional, emotional, and evaluative, as well as theoretical) is also the appropriate way to analyze the essential forms and structures of various kinds of objects. Because Husserl also believes that consciousness involves at least implicit self-consciousness of one's own mental states, the focus on consciousness shifts the analysis to a sphere that is immediately and directly given in reflection and is therefore the source of apodictic certainty, the transcendental ego. In later works Husserl qualifies this assertion by pointing out that self-givenness even for ideal objects never necessarily involves absolute certainty, so that all purported givenness requires reconfirmation. He also turns his attention to the sphere of passive synthesis, whose results may be directly given to us, while the operations that originally generate them are not, so that a phenomenological reconstruction or intentional analysis is necessary to reveal sedimented or initially hidden and prepredicative elements of consciousness.

Jean-Paul Sartre considered himself a philosopher of consciousness during the first half of his career. He subscribed to the Cartesian ideal of the cogito as the starting point of philosophy and placed a premium on the apodictic evidence it yielded. But he valued consciousness as much for its freedom and spontaneity as for its epistemological translucency. In fact, it was the relevance of translucency to moral responsibility that led him to deny both a transcendental ego and the Freudian unconscious and to posit a "prereflective Cogito."

In his The Imaginary Sartre describes imaging consciousness as the locus of "negativity, possibility, and lack." Because we are able to "hold the world at bay" and "derealize" perceptual objects imagistically, he argues, we are free. Imaging consciousness becomes paradigmatic of consciousness in general (being-for-itself) in Being and Nothingness. Adopting Husserl's thesis that all consciousness is intentional, he insists that this intentionality is primarily practical, articulating a fundamental project that gives meaning/direction (sens ) to our existence.

Sartre makes much of the prereflective self-awareness that accompanies our explicit awareness of any object, including our egos as reflective objects. Because we are always implicitly self-aware, it is unnecessary to seek self-consciousness in an endless infinity of reflections on reflections or to chase after a subject that cannot be an object (the transcendental ego). The unblinking eye of prereflective consciousness makes possible both bad faith and its overcoming through what he calls "purifying reflection," the authentic "choice" to live at a creative distance from one's ego.

Husserl's students such as Aron Gurwitsch and Ludwig Landgrebe and most of the subsequent figures within the phenomenological tradition such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty built upon Husserl's and Sartre's insights into the importance of self-awareness, intentionality, and temporalityoften under other namesbut they also stress the prepredicative and the practical nature of this awareness as well as its limitations. Hence they avoid the term "consciousness" for the most part because of its association with Cartesian aspirations to complete self-transparency and absolute autonomy in human knowledge and action that they reject.

See also Authenticity; Descartes, René; Time, Consciousness of.


Husserl, E. Cartesianische Meditationen. Husserliana 1, edited by S. Strasser. The Hauge: M. Nijhoff, 1950. Translated by D. Cairns as Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. The Hauge: M. Nijhoff, 1960. See especially secs. 622 regarding intentionality and reflection. See secs. 3041 regarding the temporal nature of consciousness and passive genesis.

Husserl, E. Formale und transzendentale Logik. Husserliana 17 edited by P. Janssen. The Hauge: M. Nijhoff, 1974. Translated by D. Cairns as Formal and Transcendental Logic. The Hauge: M. Nijhoff, 1969. Sec. 58 distinguishes between self-givenness and infallibility.

Husserl, E. Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Husserliana 3. The Hauge: M. Nijhoff, 1976. Translated by F. Kersten as Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. First Book. The Hauge: M. Nijhoff, 1982. See especially secs. 3462 regarding the intentionality of consciousness and its accessibility to pure reflection.

Nenon, Thomas. "Freedom, Responsibility, and Self-Awareness in Husserl." New Yearbook for Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy 2 (2002): 121.

Sartre, J.-P. L'etre et le néant. Paris: Gallimard, 1943. Translated by H. E. Barnes as Being and Nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Sartre, J.-P. L'imaginaire. Paris, 1940. Translated by Jonathan Webber as The Imaginary. London: Routledge, 2004.

Sartre, J.-P. La transcendence de l'ego. Paris, 1937. Translated by R. Kirkpatrick and F. Williams as The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness. New York: Noonday, 1957.

Thomas Flynn (2005)

Thomas Nenon (2005)