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Phenomenology as a Mystical Discipline

Colin Wilson explores the more provocative side of existentialism.

In the following essay I propose to argue that Husserl’s phenomenology has been radically misunderstood by the majority of those who consider themselves his followers, particularly Sartre, and that the problem lies in their failure to grasp what Husserl meant by ‘intentionality’. Intentionality should not be seen as a synonym for ‘directionality’, an essentially static attribute, but as a dynamic description, involving consciousness and its freedom to act. It is better described by analogy with a baseball pitcher than with a signpost. Paul Ricoeur was the first to state this with clarity. I will suggest that Husserl saw intentionality as a creative act, capable of altering consciousness, and potentially as a kind of mystical discipline.

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One evening early in 1933, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were having a drink with Raymond Aron, who had just returned from the French Institute in Berlin. Aron pointed to the apricot cocktail and said to Sartre: “You see, my dear fellow, if you were a phenomenologist, you could talk about this cocktail and make a philosophy out of it.” Beauvoir says that Sartre “turned pale with emotion”, because this was what he had been longing to achieve for years – to describe objects just as he saw and touched them. Sartre immediately bought a book on Husserl, and began reading it as he walked home.

I experienced a similar insight in September 1961 during my first lecture tour of the United States. It lasted for three months, and I often visited several colleges or universities a week, talking non-stop for five or six hours a day. At every college I had to start again at the beginning, and summarise the ideas that I had developed in my first book The Outsider, and its sequels Religion and the Rebel, The Age of Defeat and The Strength to Dream.

Repeating my basic ideas over and over again made me familiar with them in a new way, and made me more aware of their implications. For example, I began to see that existentialism was simply a new form of 19th century Romanticism – Romanticism Mark II, so to speak. Romanticism Mark I was the ‘Eternal Longing’, that craving for something beyond mere material existence, which tormented so many 19th century poets like a sickness. Most of the Romantics concluded that this something was unattainable, and sank into a despair that shortened their lives.

On the other hand, the existentialists philosophers, who had their roots in Kierkegaard, faced life with grim acceptance. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus says that Sisyphus is doomed to roll a rock uphill and watch it roll down again forever – yet we must consider Sisyphus happy, for he possesses the inner-freedom of his own mind. Sartre once remarked: “We are as free as you like, but helpless.”

But Husserl’s phenomenology had shown me the way out of this cul de sac of existentialism. Husserl’s most basic idea, the intentionality of perception, means not only that we are free, but most emphatically not helpless.

Husserl had borrowed the idea of intentionality from his teacher Franz Brentano, who in Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874) had defined psychology as the science of mental phenomena, which he distinguished from physical phenomena by saying that they “intentionally include an object within themselves” – ie I think about that table, that idea. Brentano’s intentionality is ‘about-ness’. But Husserl could see that intentionality is far more significant than mere ‘about-ness’. He saw that all perception is intentional. If I do not fire my attention at something, I don’t see it – or rather, I see it ‘mechanically’, hardly noticing it. If I look at my watch absent-mindedly I do not notice the time and have to look again, this time ‘intending’ it. And if I can choose what I pay attention to, intentionality is an act of freedom. And if we can change our thoughts, we can change our lives, change the world. More to the point, we can change our inner worlds.

Sartre and Camus failed to recognise this. One of Sartre’s most famous statements is: “Man is a useless passion”. But how can we be useless if we are free?

The book I wrote as a consequence of these insights, Beyond the Outsider, begins by considering the fundamental human problem: whether, as Sartre and Camus insist, we have to accept that life is meaningless.

The case against life and meaning is summarised by Schopenhauer, who says that life is a pendulum that swings between misery and boredom. We experience some anxiety or inconvenience, strive to overcome it, feel momentary relief as it vanishes, then forget to feel relieved and relapse into boredom. And if this is true, then we had better accept ‘unheroic nihilism’ as the truth about the human condition: that life is bound to be unsatisfactory to an intelligent person because it is meaningless.

But in his Experiment in Autobiography, H.G. Wells had another explanation for the unsatisfactoriness. Men like himself, he says – ‘originative intellectual workers’ – find normal human existence boring because they long for a more meaningful kind of existence. “We are like early amphibians, so to speak, struggling out of the waters that have hitherto covered our kind, into the air, seeking to breathe in a new fashion and to emancipate ourselves from…necessities. At last it becomes a case of air or nothing. But the new land has not definitely emerged from the waters, and we swim distressfully in an element we wish to abandon.” In other words, we want a new kind of freedom, which no animal has ever known.

The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy

In the next chapter of Beyond the Outsider, ‘The Strange Story of Modern Philosophy’, I begin by considering the ‘world rejection’ of Socrates, who tells his followers that since the philosopher spends his life trying to separate his soul from his body, his own death should be regarded as a consummation. This is consistent with his belief that only spirit is real, and matter is somehow unimportant and unreal. This notion would persist throughout the next two thousand years, harmonising comfortably with the Christian view that this world is unimportant compared to the next.

Then came scientific thought, in the person of Galileo, who established the spirit of experiment. He demonstrated that gravity makes all bodies fall at the same speed, and invented the telescope through which he discovered the moons of Jupiter. From then on, human thought began to take a certain purposeful direction. In 1642, the year Galileo died, Newton was born, and within forty years science had advanced further than in the previous two thousand. In philosophy, a similar leap forward had taken place while Galileo was still alive. René Descartes attempted to bring into philosophy the same kind of certainty that Galileo had brought to science. Galileo had explored the heavens with a telescope: Descartes decided to examine the human situation through a kind of magnifying glass.

His new method of achieving certainty was simplicity itself: to doubt everything. After seeing some toy robots driven by water in the park at Versailles, it struck him that human beings are almost entirely mechanical; we need stimuli to make us do something. Of course, men could not be made of clockwork, because they have souls. (Descartes was a good Catholic.) But animals could be, and probably are, machines.

How do I know I am not a machine? Because a machine has no self-awareness and no freedom. On the other hand, I can think, and can therefore choose to act as I see best.

Such an assertion obviously leaves room for doubt. If some god could endow a washing machine with self-awareness, it would probably assume that it operates of its own free will. It would clearly be mistaken.

The British philosopher John Locke – who was 18 when Descartes died – argued that we cannot know anything that does not come from our experience. There is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. When man is born, his mind is like a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Everything he then learns arises from things that happen to him. So what we call the mind – all our thoughts, responses, reactions – is a ‘construct’, like a house built of pieces of Lego.

Descartes had launched modern western philosophy with a dubious proposition, and now Locke continued it with an even more dubious one, for anybody who kept pigeons could have told Locke that they are born with all kinds of innate knowledge. This seems to be a typical characteristic of western philosophy: if someone makes a stupid howler, his successors try to justify it and carry the thing to even further lengths of absurdity, when common sense would suggest that they get their foundations right by going back to square one.

So it was perhaps inevitable that Bishop Berkeley should go a step further. If we can only know things through the mind, then why should we assume the outside world exists at all? Jam is not really sweet; it only produces a sensation of sweetness on the tongue. The sky is not really blue; it only produces a sense of blueness on the eyes. Perhaps objects only exist when we are looking at them, and when there is no one there to see them, they vanish. Or at least, they would if God was not there to see them.

This was obviously inviting some clever trouble-maker to suggest that, since there is no evidence that God exists, perhaps everything is an illusion? Which is more or less what the next ‘great philosopher’ did, by carrying doubt even further. David Hume argued that the self, whose existence Descartes thought he had proved (“I think therefore I am”), is an illusion, because when I look inside myself, I do not become aware of ‘the essential me’, but merely of thoughts and sensations. So human beings are also made of Lego. And when you look at things in this piecemeal way, they simply dissolve. Even cause and effect are seen to be a construct, for “every effect is a distinct event from its cause”, and therefore “cannot be discovered in the cause.” Perhaps God is pulling our legs when He makes a kettle boil on a fire; perhaps it is really supposed to freeze. What Hume did was to sweep the world bare of all certainty, leaving philosophy looking like a landscape after the dropping of an H-bomb.

The philosopher who tried to repair the damage was the Königsburg professor Immanuel Kant. And what he did was, in effect, to take a step backward to Bishop Berkeley, and make the mind the creator of reality – or rather, the creator of its own representation of reality, which he called the phenomenal world. Kant noticed the existence of what Husserl would later called ‘intentionality’ – that the mind makes sense of this chaotic world that surrounds us by imposing order on it. We divide things into categories – for example, everything I can see around me is either a liquid, a solid or a gas. We use clocks to impose order on the chaos of time, and measuring rods to impose it on space. We call things by words we have invented – that four-legged creature is a ‘cat’, and that one a ‘dog’. You could say we invent space and time to make our world orderly enough to live in comfortably. It is as if we had invented a pair of spectacles that impose categories on the world.

Does that mean there is no ‘true reality’ behind all our categories? Yes, there is such an underlying reality, which Kant called the noumenal world to distinguish it from the world of mere ‘phenomena’ that surrounds us. But since we can never remove the spectacles, we can never know this reality. The dramatist Kleist was so upset by Kant’s bewildering variation on Bishop Berkeley that he committed suicide.

At which point one of Kant’s followers, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, called a halt to the madness – at least, he would have done if anyone had taken any notice of him. What Fichte said was: why bother about the noumenal world? If it is unknowable, we may as well forget it. In that case, man is left in a world created by his senses. But if ‘I’ really created the universe, why do I not know that I did? There must be two ‘mes’, this everyday self who has no idea of what is going on, and another ‘me’ who is actually a kind of god who has created this world.

The next question is: how could the ordinary ‘me’ began to explore the extraordinary world created by the ‘other me’? And this is the true task of phenomenology, to which we shall come in a moment.

Fichte made one more comment that is of immense importance: that the trouble with philosophy was that its attitude to the world is passive. But philosophy, he said (in Addresses to the German Nation) should regard itself as active, or at least as a prelude to action.

Expressed in this way, this sounds unexciting – as if it is merely an earlier statement of Karl Marx’s remark that the business of philosophy is not to understand the world but to change it. In fact, it was really a blinding flash of insight: that Kantian philosophy turned philosophers into armchair theorists, so that their whole attitude to knowledge was passive, when to really grasp reality it should be active.

As to that other problem, that philosophical hare set running by Descartes, the solution seems to lie in Fichte’s insight that we have ‘two selves’. Descartes should have followed up his assertion ‘I think therefore I am’ with ‘Yes, but who am I?’. He is failing to question his own identity, and this error will lead on to the errors of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel and the rest.

Husserl’s phenomenology was an attempt to get back to square one to sort out the mess. At about the same time, another thinker, Alfred North Whitehead, was doing this independently.

Alfred North Whitehead

Whitehead began by returning to Hume and pinning down the underlying fallacy. Hume argued that we have no true ‘inner self’. He claimed that when he looked inside himself for ‘the real David Hume’, he only came across ideas and impressions, but nothing like a ‘self’. And he concluded that all that can be found inside us is a ‘stream of consciousness’ – a lot of scurrying thoughts whose only ‘identity’ is that they come one after another. This is the realisation that comes, he says, when you look at your inner self through a magnifying glass.

In a little book called Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect, Whitehead points out that this method of looking at something through a magnifying glass is a good way of missing its meaning. If, for example, you looked at a great painting through a magnifying glass, you would only see the texture of the paint. If you look at a newspaper photograph close-up, you would only see disconnected dots. In both cases you are looking at individual trees and failing to see that they constitute a wood. In order to see the wood, we need to take a bird’s eye view, to stand back. So we have two kinds of perception: bird’s eye and worm’s eye, close-up and far-off. Both only give half the truth.

Whitehead calls these two modes ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal efficacy’. The first is easy to understand – what is in front of your nose. The second is more difficult. The example Whitehead gives is the words ‘United States’. You do not grasp this phrase piecemeal: “United – that means held together. States – yes, that means states like Florida and California. Oh yes, that means America….” You see the two words as one, Unitedstates, and register that as ‘America’. Cause and effect blend into one.

Now Hume criticised causality by saying that every effect is quite distinct from its cause, and so is not ‘necessarily’ linked to it. Whitehead replies: In the case of grasping a ‘meaning’, cause and effect are not merely ‘linked’ – they are one.

We might say then that we have two ‘modes of perception’, which could be called ‘immediacy perception’ and ‘meaning perception’. When you are very tired and depressed, your meaning-perception becomes blurred (Sartre calls it nausea; the world dissolves into bits and pieces). But this is an illusion, caused by tiredness. On the other hand, when you are drunk and feeling jolly, the world seems to be all meaning. Then it is your immediacy perception that becomes blurred; you cannot even get your key into the keyhole.

On the other hand, there are times – perhaps when you are feeling happy and excited on a spring morning – when the two modes of perception seem to blend together perfectly. You have a wonderful sense of meaning, yet your immediacy perception is also fully operational.

What happens then could be compared to the film The Dam Busters, in which the British planes had to drop bombs shaped like billiard balls that bounced along the Moehne Lake and hit the dam at water level. The problem for the pilot was to know when he was at exactly the right height to drop them. The solution was to place two spotlights on the plane, one in the nose, one in the tail, whose two beams converged when the plane was at exactly the right height. So when there was just one spot on the surface of the lake, the pilot released the bombs.

According to Whitehead, our most brilliant moments of insight happen when the two beams – immediacy perception and meaning perception – converge.

This, then, is Whitehead’s ‘refutation of Hume’, and it is a breakthrough in western philosophy because it provides new foundations. The question ‘Do we have free will or are we robots?’ becomes absurd. Instead, philosophy can get back to its proper business – ‘understanding the universe’.

Husserl and The Me Behind the Scenes

What of that other question: of the ‘me’ behind the scenes, whose existence was recognised by Fichte? This was the problem to which Edmund Husserl devoted his life.

When he was at university, in the 1880s, philosophy was still struggling to throw off the toils of Bishop Berkeley, and the notion that ‘meaning’ is something created by the mind. John Stuart Mill, for example, argued that the feeling of logical certainty is no more than that – a feeling – and that all logic can be therefore reduced to psychology. This notion is called ‘psychologism’, and in its broadest sense it holds that philosophy, logic – even mathematics – can be explained in terms of psychology. This outraged Husserl, for it implied that all truth is ‘relative’, and Husserl could see that philosophy is never going to escape from muddle and confusion while it accepts that premise. So his starting point was the acceptance that logic deals with objective truth, not with relative ideas.

His first major work, Logical Investigations, was a sustained attack on psychologism, and an attempt to show that philosophy should be nothing less than a science.

This, of course, is what Descartes wanted to do when he asked the question: ‘Of what can we be certain?’ Husserl gave Descartes full credit for this, and even entitled one of his most important series of lectures ‘Cartesian Meditations’. But, as we have seen, Descartes’ problem was that he began with the wrong question: ‘What can I know?’, failing to ask who was this ‘I’ who wanted to know.

Let me try putting this another way. In her book about ‘female outsiders’ Alone, Alone, Rosemary Dinnage discusses Bertrand Russell’s affair with Ottoline Morrell and says:

“It is important to understand…that it was his underlying need to know whether anything could be established as true that shaped his whole mind… He himself felt that his search had made him into a ‘logic machine’, a ‘spectator and not an actor’, with a ‘mind like a search light, very bright in one direction but dark everywhere else’.”

What Russell had recognised was what Fichte had said a century earlier: that real philosophy demands an active attitude, rather than the passive one of the philosopher sitting in his armchair. To ‘know’ something merely with the mind is hardly to know it at all. Our whole being is somehow involved in true knowing. When this happens, knowledge has a ‘weight’ that is not found in merely intellectual knowing.

This is also the essence of Husserl’s revolution: that consciousness is intentional, that it is active, not passive. It is like a hand reaching out and grabbing things, not just a searchlight. And Russell’s own career is a sad example of what happens when a thinker stays in the ‘Cartesian’ attitude to philosophy. Russell spent his whole life asking: ‘What can we know for certain?’, and the result is oddly disappointing, for he never found a satisfactory answer.

But if, like Rosemary Dinnage, we remove our attention from Russell the thinker to Russell the person, we become aware of the consequences of his ‘passive’ attitude to philosophy – that is, he totally failed to bring his interior philosopher and human being into line. As his second wife Dora put it to Rosemary Dinnage: “Bertie could behave rottenly.” Until he was a very elderly gentleman he continued to pursue women, and to behave like an adolescent. As a person, he remained deeply unsatisfying to all the women he got involved with, and was dumped innumerable times. (I imagine his lifelong desire to screw any attractive female, from 15 to 50, was due to a gloomy conviction in adolescence that a person so ugly and preoccupied with ideas would remain love-starved, and by the time he learned different, the neurosis was too deep to be uprooted.)

But how could a person like Russell have benefited from Husserl’s phenomenology? In fact, we may as well open the question out and ask: How could anyone?

Let me start by quoting the French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur. He is talking about the ‘reduction’ or epoché, that method of ‘standing back’ and viewing things from a distance – rather like standing back from a large picture in an art gallery:

“By means of this reduction consciousness rids itself of a naiveté which it has beforehand, and which Husserl calls the natural attitude. This attitude consists in spontaneously believing that the world which is there is simply given. In correcting itself about this naiveté, consciousness discovers that it is in itself giving, sense-giving. The reduction does not exclude the presence of the world; it takes nothing back. It does not even suspend the primacy of intuition in every cognition. After the reduction, consciousness continues seeing, but without being absorbed in this seeing, without being lost in it. Rather, the very seeing itself is discovered as a doing (opération), as a producing (oevre) – once Husserl even says ‘as a creating’. Husserl would be understood – and the one who thus understands him would be a phenomenologist – if the intentionality which culminates in seeing were recognised to be a creative vision.”
(Husserl: An Analysis of his Phenomenology, Ricoeur 1987.)

But how?, the reader wants to ask. What is the trick of transforming ordinary perception into creative vision?

We can begin by noting that poets do it all the time, so do great painters like Van Gogh. Read Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and you can feel the ‘phenomenological vision’. Or look at a great painting by Van Gogh or Vlaminck or Soutine. When I was working in a tax office in Rugby in my teens, I remember my boss saying with disgust that he thought Van Gogh simply distorted everything he painted. He was missing the point: that Van Gogh was saying: “This is how I see things when I put on my creative spectacles.” Rupert Brooke said that on a spring morning he sometimes walked down a country road feeling almost sick with excitement.

Brooke realised that he could bring on this feeling by looking at things in a certain way. And what was really happening when he did this was that he had somehow become aware that he could see more, become aware of more, by looking at things as if they possessed hidden depths of meaning. For it is true. He was becoming conscious of the intentional element in perception, that his ‘seeing’ was in itself a creative act.

Perhaps an example might help. A normal young male feels spontaneous sexual excitement if he sees a girl taking off her clothes. He feels this is ‘natural’, like feeling hungry when you smell cooking. But supposing he is looking through an art book with reproductions of paintings, and he sees a picture of a model taking off her clothes. She is attractive, and he stares at the painting, and then – let us suppose – deliberately induces sexual excitement. How does he do this? In that question lies the essence of phenomenology. You could say that he looks at the picture, and deliberately puts himself in the state of mind of a man about to climb into bed with her. He ceases to see the picture from ‘the natural standpoint’ (‘this is just a picture’) and deliberately endows it with a dimension of reality. It can be seen that he is again ‘putting on his creative spectacles’. As Derrida has pointed out, the act of masturbation is a textbook illustration of intentionality in action.

The mind can deliberately change the way it sees things. Brooke tells how he can wander about a village wild with exhilaration:

“And it’s not only beauty and beautiful things. In a flicker of sunlight on a blank wall, or a reach of muddy pavement, or smoke from an engine at night, there’s a sudden significance and importance and inspiration that makes the breath stop with a gulp of certainty and happiness. It’s not that the wall or the smoke seem important for anything or suddenly reveal any general statement, or are suddenly seen to be good or beautiful in themselves – only that for you they’re perfect and unique. It’s like being in love with a person… I suppose my occupation is being in love with the universe.”

We can grasp what Ricoeur meant by ‘the very seeing is discovered as a doing’. Brooke is so excited because he realises he can make himself see things in a certain way, and respond to them – just as an adolescent is excited when he discovers that this body can produce a heady brew called sexual excitement. And this is the very essence of phenomenology. You might say that phenomenology is a prosaic way of developing the mystical faculty.

© Colin Wilson 2006

Colin Wilson was catapulted to fame in 1956 by the success of his book The Outsider, which made him the leading English exponent of existentialism. Since then he has written a vast number of books on a wide range of topics.

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