A Note on Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology

Around the beginning of the 20th century, philosophy split into two directions, “analytic” and “continental” philosophy. Or so the story goes, as told by some philosophers of the “analytic camp”. Elsewhere I have argued that I don’t think these are valid terms. There was a larger number of different directions of philosophy and what we now call “analytic philosophy” is just one of them and does not have a special status.

Some of the directions of thought lumped together as “continental philosophy” might also have more in common with the “analytic” ones than the proponents of analytic philosophy are realizing. Take, for example, phenomenology, as proposed by Husserl, on one hand, and some strands of analytic philosophy that are connected to classical “artificial intelligence” and “cognitive science”, on the other. The people working within those paradigms might not see the similarity, but there is one:

In those parts of analytic philosophy that are trying to develop models of human mind and language (and feed into AI and cognitive science), an attempt is made to get a scientific description of the human mind by finding the laws according to which the mind is working. This is based on the assumption that such fixed laws of thought and perception or more generally of cognitive processes do exist.

This results in (and from) an ahistorical view of the human mind. The human mind is not viewed as something that develops historically but as something that has a fixed structure (which is determined by genes and only develops by means of genetic, i.e. biological changes).

In phenomenology, as put forward by Husserl, an attempt is made to arrive at objective descriptions of things as experienced. In order to do so and to ward off any psychologism, the human mind and its foundation in psychology, neurology or biology is left out of the description. Husserl starts with some “transcendental mind” that is itself not analyzed or described. In opposition to the current of “philosophical anthropology” of the 1920s and 1930s, there is something like a proscription of anthropology in his approach. He starts with some concept of rationality that is not itself analyzed.

However, such an approach would only work if the human mind would be ahistorical and not developing. In a way, Husserl is stepping into the same trap of the European rationalistic tradition as the analytic tradition.

If the human mind is culture- and time-specific and changes historically, this exclusion of anthropology does not work. If the mind is “programmable”, i.e. if information taken up from the environment is integrated into it, there would be no invariable rationality or “Vernunft” that can be excluded from view (as in Husserl’s approach) or that can be described by means of formalisms (as in cognitive science, AI and related strands of analytic philosophy).

Any formal description of the human mind is then incomplete and extensible and any description of the experienced world is specific for a certain time and culture, or even for an individual or a certain stage in an individual’s life. Fixing the human rationality, either to exclude it from view or to describe it scientifically, does not work if this mind does not have a fixed border and information from outside it can be integrated into it in a process akin to programming.

The real rift in early 20th century would then not be between “analytic philosophy” and “continental philosophy”, but between a rationalistic tradition viewing the mind as stable and fixed and another tradition that views it as something that is historically developing and world-open. This latter direction would contain some brands of historicism (one could put Dilthey here, although he is a borderline case)[1] and the mentioned philosophical anthropologists (Plessner, Gehlen, Scheeler), who described the human being as “world-open”. One could probably also include pragmatism here.

There are obviously different ways to group the different currents of philosophy. We should not just take the analytic/continental division as given. Reality is much more complicated.


[1] Dilthey criticized Kant’s apriori as rigid and dead because it was ahistorical. However, he made several attempts to develop a psychology and never finished any of these projects. This might have been an impossible project because a complete description of psychology is impossible if the mind is historic. The topic seems to have melted away under his hands, but he seems not to have come to the conclusion that he was trying something impossible.


7 thoughts on “A Note on Analytic Philosophy and Phenomenology

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  1. I’m not sure I’m following here. I don’t think of Husserl as being opposed to psychology, neurology, etc., but what he’s doing in phenomenology does necessarily exclude those via bracketing. I don’t doubt that culture plays a huge role in how we interpret the world, and I’m sure Husserl would include that in phenomenology, phenomenologically. In other words, without recourse to reductive methods of understanding culture. (Not sure he’s done this or talked about it.)

    His “ahistorical” mind seems that way because of his failure to really get off the ground. That said, he’d probably say there are certain aspects of experience that are ahistorical. The ability to perceive objects as such, for example, are probably not culture relative. (More on this when I get to my post on intentionality. And I should just speak for myself and my own understanding of phenomenology rather than saying “Husserl said”…otherwise I’d have to start looking things up, and I’ve decided to be lazier this year.) 🙂

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  2. I did not invent the term “proscription of anthropolog” (“Anthropologieverbot”), I got it from Hans Blumenberg’s book “Beschreibung des Menschen”. Blumenberg uses it when discussing Husserl’s philosophy. However, I think his works have not yet been translated into English.

    As far as I understand Husserl’s version of phenomemology, one of his starting points is to leave asside any assumptions about the existence of an “outside” physical world. If this is so, he can do psychology as a description of experienced (i.e. conscious) processes accessible to intorspection, but anything “below” that, any physical processes are outside of his reach. The Husserlian mind is not embedded into the physical world, it is not looked at.

    But if the mind is something that is developing, this seems a problematic approach to me. For example, if I hear a recording of people talking in my own native language (German) I will understand them without much effort and without explicitely and consciously invoking any rules of grammar. I am somehow directly perceiving the content. If you hear the same talk, you will just hear a sequence of sounds. But you could take German classes and after some time, you would understand some of the same recording. Something you encountered during the German classes got integrated into your “system” and with enough training, you would perceive the meaning with ease, without any conscious effort. So as a result of experiences during the language classes, the experience of hearing that recording changes fundamentally. It seems impossible to describe the experience one has when hearing that recording without taking into account the history of the individual. There is no abstract self, there are only individual selfs with individual histories, and these histories are embedded into cultures and cultural histories.

    In the same way, the perception of everyday objects and components of our life-world is dependent on our knowledge (i.e. the modifications of the self resulting from our histories or biographies). A self without such a history does not exist (except maybe a baby, but the baby is not able to do a phenomenological analysis). So I doubt if Husserl’s starting point is valid. If there was any fixed psychological basis, as classical AI assumes, it might be possible, but I think it does not exist. Just like in science, there is no theory-independent observation, in everyday experience, there is no culture- and biography-independent experience. As a result, it is not possible to get at the essence (Wesen) of any phenomena because such an essence does not exist independent of culture and individual biography.

    That does not mean that phenomenology in general is impossible, but I think something is wrong with Husserl’s approach (I might, however, misunderstand him, I am only beginning to look into this stuff).


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