Freedom and Phenomenology

Freedom and Phenomenology

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)

. . . our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.1

William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher, joined many thinkers during the early part of the twentieth century in declaring that we are in close proximity to amazing powers of consciousness that have become cloaked from “normal” consciousness, partly because of the Lockean-Humean theory of perception. Their idea of perception has been so ingrained in our “rational consciousness” that I believe some thinkers are afraid to leave the comfort of their long-held theories to experience something beyond. Fear of the unknown must play some part in this; denial, as well. James was an exception. And I wonder how much of a role is played by the fear of society’s elites that a considerable number of the masses would learn about different modes of consciousness, thereby reducing said elites’ level of control? It would be much more advantageous to the corporate world for the masses to stay ignorant of how they are manipulated into consumerism. Also, it is beneficial to our political leaders to trip up mass consciousness with wedge issues, and thoughts of us losing our “freedoms.” But the only freedom we really possess is inner freedom. We have been duped into thinking we are born with political freedom. As long as people are constantly thinking how screwed up society is, they will never discover inner freedom or “the potential forms of consciousness.”

Consciousness, even in its normal, everyday mode, has the freedom to act. Freedom has always been a part of Existentialism, as well as the responsibility for one’s freedom that walks alongside it. Even so, in the usual understanding of Existentialism, the idea of freedom has been twisted into something else. Colin Wilson writes:

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.”2

Camus claims Sisyphus has the freedom of his own mind, but yet he is doomed to roll the rock up and watch it roll back down endlessly. This is not inner freedom because he will never have the freedom to break the cycle of misery within which he suffers. This greatly resembles Saṃsāra, but without the possibility of liberation. Furthermore, Sartre’s statement reveals the same powerless mentality. Real inner freedom brings liberation from the theoretical and conceptual chains that bind us. The flame of inner freedom provides us with the ability to experience nihilism, for instance, as a prelude to transformation, and then create real meaning from its ashes.

Wilson calls the doom and helplessness of Camus and Sartre the “cul de sac of existentialism.”3 He claims Edmund Husserl shows the way out. It is Husserl’s idea of the “intentionality of perception” that Wilson believes will lead to a new understanding of existentialism, and of human freedom. Through a correct understanding of intentionality, we will discover “that we are free, but most emphatically not helpless.”4 Actually, University of Vienna professor, Franz Brentano, reintroduced the idea of intentionality into philosophy. It was originally conceived by the Scholastics in the Middle Ages. His idea is usually described as “about-ness.” Brentano distinguished between mental phenomena and physical phenomena; intentionality is the primary characteristic of mental phenomena. His idea of intentionality says that each psychological act is intentional toward some object. For example, every feeling possesses an object that the feeling is about. This object is called the “intentional object.” Brentano writes:

Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction towards an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself, although they do not all do so in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgement something is affirmed or denied, in love loved, in hate hated, in desire desired and so on. This intentional in-existence is characteristic exclusively of mental phenomena. No physical phenomenon exhibits anything like it. We could, therefore, define mental phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which contain an object intentionally within themselves.5

Husserl was a student of Brentano’s in Vienna, along with the likes of Alexius Meinong, Sigmund Freud, and Rudolf Steiner. Other luminaries came out of this School of Brentano, as it was informally called, as well. Now, here is Husserl’s major discovery: Wilson says, “Husserl could see that intentionality is far more significant than mere ‘about-ness’. He saw that all perception is intentional.”6 Wilson writes:

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.7

The discovery that we can choose what we pay attention to is revolutionary to Western thinking. It’s actually just common sense. Furthermore, it is amazing that the existentialists did not see this as the opening out of the tangled underbrush we are often enmeshed in. Wilson says, “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?”8 Wilson sees this contribution to philosophy by Husserl as “an attempt to get back to square one to sort out the mess,” one part of the mess being the Lockean-Humean theory of perception that so hindered, and still hinders to this day, Western thinking.

Please note that “human freedom” does not equate to so-called civil rights, or any kind of political freedom. There is very little, if any, of that in this world. The inner freedom we do possess, however, to intentionally choose the objects of our mental states is priceless. With this freedom, we can create worlds. Hopefully, in the future we can use our inner freedom to create more political freedom among nations. This type of freedom, however, will never arise through revolutions, protesting, or other social movements, whether capitalist, socialist, or communist. It will only come through individuals who seek a widening of consciousness and the awareness it brings through their inner freedom.



Brentano, Franz. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. Ed. by Linda L. McAlister. Routledge: London, 1995 [1874].

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. Logman’s, Green, and Co: New York 1902

Wilson, Colin. Phenomenology as a Mystical Discipline. Philosophy Now: Issue 56, 2006. Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.

  1. Varieties of Religious Experience, 388
  2. Phenomenology
  3. ibid.
  4. ibid.
  5. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, 88-89
  6. Phenomenology
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid.

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