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The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as thestudy of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally,phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, orthings as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experiencethings, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenologystudies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective orfirst person point of view. This field of philosophy is then to bedistinguished from, and related to, the other main fields ofphilosophy: ontology (the study of being or what is), epistemology (thestudy of knowledge), logic (the study of valid reasoning), ethics (thestudy of right and wrong action), etc.
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This division of labor in the theory of mind can be seen as anextension of Brentano’s original distinction between descriptive andgenetic psychology. Phenomenology offers descriptive analyses of mentalphenomena, while neuroscience (and wider biology and ultimatelyphysics) offers models of explanation of what causes or gives rise tomental phenomena. Cultural theory offers analyses of social activitiesand their impact on experience, including ways language shapes ourthought, emotion, and motivation. And ontology frames all these resultswithin a basic scheme of the structure of the world, including our ownminds.
Philosophers have sometimes argued that one of these fields is“first philosophy”, the most fundamental discipline, on which allphilosophy or all knowledge or wisdom rests. Historically (it may beargued), Socrates and Plato put ethics first, then Aristotle putmetaphysics or ontology first, then Descartes put epistemology first,then Russell put logic first, and then Husserl (in his latertranscendental phase) put phenomenology first.
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After Ryle, philosophers sought a more explicit and generallynaturalistic ontology of mind. In the 1950s materialism was arguedanew, urging that mental states are identical with states of thecentral nervous system. The classical identity theory holds that eachtoken mental state (in a particular person’s mind at a particular time)is identical with a token brain state (in that person’s brain at thattime). A stronger materialism holds, instead, that each type of mentalstate is identical with a type of brain state. But materialism does notfit comfortably with phenomenology. For it is not obvious how consciousmental states as we experience them—sensations, thoughts,emotions—can simply be the complex neural states that somehowsubserve or implement them. If mental states and neural states aresimply identical, in token or in type, where in our scientific theoryof mind does the phenomenology occur—is it not simply replacedby neuroscience? And yet experience is part of what is to be explainedby neuroscience.
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René Descartes, in his epoch-making Meditations on FirstPhilosophy (1641), had argued that minds and bodies are two distinctkinds of being or substance with two distinct kinds of attributes ormodes: bodies are characterized by spatiotemporal physical properties,while minds are characterized by properties of thinking (includingseeing, feeling, etc.). Centuries later, phenomenology would find, withBrentano and Husserl, that mental acts are characterized byconsciousness and intentionality, while natural science would find thatphysical systems are characterized by mass and force, ultimately bygravitational, electromagnetic, and quantum fields. Where do we findconsciousness and intentionality in thequantum-electromagnetic-gravitational field that, by hypothesis, orderseverything in the natural world in which we humans and our minds exist?That is the mind-body problem today. In short, phenomenology by anyother name lies at the heart of the contemporary mind-body problem.
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In the late 1960s and 1970s the computer model of mind set in, andfunctionalism became the dominant model of mind. On this model, mind isnot what the brain consists in (electrochemical transactions in neuronsin vast complexes). Instead, mind is what brains do: their function ofmediating between information coming into the organism and behaviorproceeding from the organism. Thus, a mental state is a functionalstate of the brain or of the human (or animal) organism. Morespecifically, on a favorite variation of functionalism, the mind is acomputing system: mind is to brain as software is to hardware; thoughtsare just programs running on the brain’s “wetware”. Sincethe 1970s the cognitive sciences—from experimental studies ofcognition to neuroscience—have tended toward a mix ofmaterialism and functionalism. Gradually, however, philosophers foundthat phenomenological aspects of the mind pose problems for thefunctionalist paradigm too.
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It ought to be obvious that phenomenology has a lot to say in thearea called philosophy of mind. Yet the traditions of phenomenology andanalytic philosophy of mind have not been closely joined, despiteoverlapping areas of interest. So it is appropriate to close thissurvey of phenomenology by addressing philosophy of mind, one of themost vigorously debated areas in recent philosophy.