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  • Why Ontologize?
  • Melvin Woody (bio)

existential psychotherapy, Heidegger, Husserl, phenomenology

Why ontologize? Why should we supplant or supplement the scientific conceptual vocabulary that psychiatry has developed in the course of the past century and start thinking in terms of Being and beings. That question is bound to arise for any psychotherapist upon first encounter with existential ontology—as it did for the participants in the Zollikon seminars. Angelica Tratter responds to that question from the side of psychiatry by explaining how existential psychotherapy develops out of Heidegger’s turn to fundamental ontology, both illustrating and contributing to that development by her own further elaboration of Binswanger’s phenomenology of world designs and Merleau-Ponty’s notion of emblems of being.

I will try to complement Tratter’s essay by tackling the same question from the side of philosophy—by showing how the turn to ontology follows from a critique of the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, Heidegger’s teacher and colleague, and why that led to the reformulation of transcendental phenomenology as existential ontology and how that motivates adopting a conceptual vocabulary that most clinicians find alien and perplexing.

Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology

Husserl (1962) developed phenomenology in defense of the objectivity of science and mathematics against a historicism and psychologism that threatened to reduce logic to an expression of how humans happen to think and, perhaps, only how they happen to think in a particular historical culture. He claimed to found a new, presuppositionless science of phenomenology that would set aside all metaphysical assumptions about what sort of reality to ascribe to the objects we find in sense experience or imagination—or in abstract logic and mathematics and science. With all such metaphysical questions ‘bracketed,’ phenomenology describes and analyses all such phenomena just as they present themselves in experience. Husserl compared this project with Descartes’ use of systematic doubt to arrive at certainty about his own thoughts as thoughts and he argued that transcendental phenomenology would provide a comparable certainty as a basis for vindicating the objectivity of the several particular sciences. We cannot undertake to explore the subtleties of Husserl’s phenomenology here. For our purposes, it will suffice to cite what he concluded about being. In his Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology Husserl wrote that:

the whole spatio-temporal world, to which man and the human Ego claim to belong as subordinate singular [End Page 151] realities, is according to its meaning mere intentional Being, a Being, therefore, which has the merely secondary relative sense of a Being for a consciousness. It is a Being which consciousness in its own experiences (Erfahrungen) posits, and is, in principle, intuitable and determinable only as the element common to the harmoniously motivated appearance manifolds, but over and beyond this it is just nothing at all.

(1962, 153)1

But . . . what then are we to make of the being of consciousness? And how are we to account for its existence?

Heidegger (1962) and Sartre (1956) both recognized that Husserl had not actually set aside all metaphysical assumptions. He had conceived of consciousness as a sort of container or field within which all else falls. But that contradicts the intentional character of consciousness implicit in his claim that that all beings are merely intentional. Husserl had adopted Franz Brentano’s (1973) view that consciousness is always conscious of some object that it intends or means. It never just exists by itself, apart from any object. As Sartre put it, “A consciousness which would be consciousness of nothing would be an absolute nothing” (1956, 790). It follows that the being of consciousness depends upon the being of its objects. Consciousness, therefore, should not be conceived as a container or field within which its objects fall, but more as an arrow directed at and dependent on some being other than itself. The world cannot be within consciousness; consciousness must be within the world.

Being in the World: The Ontological Turn

Husserl had fallen into a Cartesian trap because he had not shed the metaphysical assumptions inherent in the traditional, post-Cartesian notion of the conscious mind. Heidegger managed to avoid that...


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pp. 151-154
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