The Phenomenology of Thinking

Thinking is a central capacity of the human mind. It is a play on different levels in many of our activities. From the perspective of ordinary language use it even seems hard, if not impossible, not to think of anything at all while we are conscious. When it comes to science as a specific type of methodically guided thinking, it is employed to proceed from data and observation to theoretical models and systems. Likewise, it is by way of further thinking that we (re-)model axioms, hypotheses, experiments and anthropology, linguistics and logic.

Phenomenology broadly construed as the systematic reflective investigation of the phenomena we encounter in consciousness and how we experience them, is bound to have its own characteristic perspective of thinking. The aforementioned science usually conceptualize thinking is insolation from it being a process constituted and sustained through the activity of the thinking subject. Nonetheless, their attempts prove to be resourceful and yield substantial results. Today we know that when he think, a manifold of processes and sub-processes occur in the “organ of thinking”, the brain. Cognitive psychological experiments are designed to test the kinds of information processing involved in thinking, and to model them as complex algorithms.

These and other empirical approaches are appropriate and very insightful in their own right. Yet, they abstract from thinking as a describable act or complex of acts, which is geared towards objects of thought in consciousness, a unique perspective that phenomenology is equipped to investigate. However, phenomenology given its Husserlian origins with its strong focus on subjective constitution, may very well profit insights disclosed by the empirical sciences, as wells a from an exchange with analytic philosophy.

This dialogue seems particularly important in light of the recent upsurge of discussion in the philosophy of mind on the nature of thought. Central to this debate is the question whether thinking has its distinctive “phenomenology”, i.e. its describable quality of “what-it-is-likeness” of the experience of thinking.  Whereas most authors agree that there is an originary mode of phenomenal givenness of sensory and imagistic experiences, there is disagreement over what is – in contrast – called ‘cognitive phenomenology’. Some authors claim that thinking is an experience with its own sui generis phenomenal properties, whereas other defy this notion.

‘The Phenomenology of Thinking’ by relating these problems to insights from the Husserlian Tradition. It aims to show that thinking as a mental process can be grasped using the phenomenological methods of description, variation, constitution analysis or the theory of experience and judgment.


Dr Thiemo Breyer
Klinik für Allgemeine Psychiatrie
Universität Heidelberg
Voßstr. 2
69115 Heidelberg
Telefon: +49 (0) 56 8094

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Letzte Änderung: 08.11.2012
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