It is a practical impossibility to give a brief summary of the principles and methods of phenomenology and their enormous influence on the human sciences, as well as the basic features of one of its derivations—existential psychiatry. We can only highlight the elements which seem to be fundamental to our understanding of their role in the history of psychiatry.

Phenomenology and the phenomenological movement are considered to have been founded by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl at the beginning of the twentieth century. Husserl first studied mathematics and later philosophy with Franz Brentano, from whom he adopted the concept of the intentionality of consciousness: 'And thus we can define psychic phenomena by saying that they are those phenomena which, precisely as intention, contain an object in themselves'/1.) Husserl later expresses the same idea in his own words: 'In simple acts of perceiving we are directed to the things perceived, in remembering, to the remembered ones, in thinking, to thoughts, in evaluating, to values, in willing, to objectives and perspectives ...'. (2) Reality is, in the first place, experienced as the 'noema' of a 'noesis', as the content of our conscious acts.

Philosophy has to develop a direct and immediate approach to objects and to avoid the many prejudices which characterize history and human knowledge. Husserl's command 'To the things themselves' does not simply mean withdrawing from all traditional dogmas; rather, it is an invitation to become fully immersed in things. Eugen Fink, Husserl's follower, wrote: '[it is a matter of] an immersion in the authentic problems as such ... [without] keeping up with ingenuous evidences'. (3) A return to things as they are in themselves does not mean that one takes concrete facts at face value, as one does in realism for example. On the contrary, one should reach beyond the realm of that which shows itself. Furthermore, phenomenology does not restrict its investigational data to sense experiences, but accepts on equal terms non-sensory data (such as relations and values) which present themselves intuitively. Phenomenology obtains its knowledge from a full and direct 'givenness' (the intuition) of the object.

Phenomenological experience is certainly not a natural experience, although it stems from this. In everyday life one finds oneself in a natural attitude ingenuously directed towards the world of objects. However, this directs us neither to knowledge nor, even less, to scientific knowledge. In order to transform this natural attitude to scientific knowledge we reduce the living object to only one of its aspects. For example, when chemists consider water, they reduce all meanings of the subject to its mere molecular composition: two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. In essence, the natural scientist projects the chemical-physical theory of reality upon the entirety of the phenomenon, disregarding all other elements constituting the real object 'water'. Chemists do not consider the capacity of water to quench thirst or to make fields bear fruit, nor do they invoke the symbolisms of the depth of the sea, the importance of clouds, or the beauty of a lake. In contrast, when phenomenologists adopt a reflexive attitude, they direct their attention to the totality of the many ways in which an object is perceived in consciousness. Broekman, an outstanding Husserl scholar, states in this context: 'This fundamental division into two attitudes (natural and phenomenological) and their respective fields is a leitmotive which can be found in all of phenomenology'.(4)

According to Blankenburg, the phenomenological attitude tries:

... to be as open as possible to the different ways of being of the object, that is to say, it tries to be (even) 'more natural' than natural experience itself. But on the other hand, it also tries to be 'more scientific' than scientific experience, as it does not limit itself to one particular project, but transforms in its subject [the totality of] the ways of being of what faces us.(5)

In other words: in every real experience we experience more than that which is given by perception of the mere object. This was brilliantly formulated almost 100 years before Husserl by Goethe, who stated in one of his aphorisms: 'The experience is always only half of the experience'. (6) We always live more than we live, and experience more than we experience, and to explore this other part is the great task of phenomenology. The Goethean principle, itself so parallel to Husserl's, leads us directly to the oeuvre of the French author Marcel Proust. The deep meaning of his novel Remembrance of Things Past lies in the recovery of everything that he experienced in the past and lived at that moment almost without becoming aware of it. The major features of his work parallel the founding phases of the phenomenological method: a total openness to reality, a reflexive attitude which perceives reality as given to a consciousness, and a progressive elimination of all presuppositions, prejudices, and accidental elements as an instrument to achieve insight into the essence of what is experienced.

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