…what is intentionality?

What is intentionality in terms of Husserl’s phenomenology? To understand intentionality is to also understand phenomenology at its most fundamental level. Generally, intentionality is the way in which phenomena appear to consciousness. Yet, this is not clear enough because we might not know what it means for phenomena to appear to consciousness. One way to consider intentionality is to consider consciousness as a means of apprehending the world as it is given to consciousness. The word given and the word appear are meant to be combined and expanded into the realization that this is beyond a Cartesian/rationalist way of knowing the world. Now to examine how it can be the case that Cartesian rationalism is too much of a limitation on lived experience to be phenomenological, while comparing this to the importance of Husserl’s intentionality.

To review, a rationalist like Descartes prioritizes rational thought, above and beyond perceptual experience. Once we cut the importance of perceptual experience out of how we know the world, there is a ‘pure’ rational way in which come to know the world. It is with this pure distillation of experience away from the confines of perceptual experience, where we have a type of experience that is universally applicable. To be sure, we must not ignore the simple fact that Descartes still considered empirical perception as the manner in which we apprehend the world and experience, yet rational thought has an essential certainty (like that of math) that Descartes wanted to locate and thus prioritize. Given all this, we are left with a rational distillation of experience away from the confines of perception. This is a problem for the rationalist because it limits experience into rational priority. On the other hand, Husserl wanted phenomenology to be much more philosophically holistic. This indicates the crucial point of intentionality. Let us diagram the above consideration with regard to Cartesian rationality in comparison to Husserl’s intentionality.  

intentionality and descartes

The diagram then should make it clear that the aims between the two philosophers are slightly different, while not in total opposition. Husserl’s aim is getting to know the ‘life-world’ by way of phenomenological understanding is likewise, getting to know the way in which intentionality operates for conscious experience. This indicates that we need to get clear on the way in which conscious experience is intended. What is intended is how we are conscious of phenomena—getting to know how phenomena appear to consciousness is the primary is the goal of the phenomenologist. While taking this into consideration, we must also recognize that the three formal structures of phenomenology (parts and whole, identity in a manifold, and presence and absence) are the means by which phenomena appear to us consciously (i.e. how experience is intended as consciousness). The three formal structures are both empirically evident and rationally evident in the appearance of phenomena for consciousness. This rational component of intentional experience must not be ignored. Husserl’s phenomenology is an eidetic philosophy, it is a search for essences. To reveal the essence of phenomena is to know how phenomena appears to consciousness—to know how phenomena is intended. The search for essences is akin to finding what is a priori while at the same time going beyond the a priori to expose the lived experience of the life-world.

Now it becomes easier to isolate how Cartesian rationalism (the way in which we access the truth) is limited with regard to phenomenology. If we with Descartes, only cherish that which is rational, we must, under his guidelines extract perceptual experience from our findings of the world. Once this is done we are left with a purely rational experience—cogito ergo sum! Yet cogito ergo sum is bought at the expense of perception, otherwise known as the primary way in which phenomena appears to consciousness. Rational thought is simply not the only way phenomena is intended.


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