What is Phenomenology (Brief)?

Introduction

Phenomenology is a philosophical approach / method that rose to prominence in the early 20th century, largely developed in Germany by philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, but also took hold in France by Maurice Jean Jacques Merleau-Ponty. The main premise of phenomenology is that ‘reality’ is perceived and understood through human consciousness and is not independent of it – objects in the world as well as historical and other events are ‘phenomena’ that are observed through a human input and cannot be entirely without it.

Because phenomenology is interested in perception as it is dependent on the human input, it values individual and group experience of phenomena instead of their nature. That is, phenomenology studies how human beings experience objects in the world, but also historical events, other people, etc. from a subjective position. Phenomenology also looks at how personal or group experience is directed towards the objective world – what ‘intention’ subjective experiences have with the world. Phenomenology also analyses ‘intentionality’ – i.e. direction – in a normative and prescriptive way: it looks at how various conditions that are presented as experiences open up possibilities of acting differently, such as fostering new habits and social practices, changing the use of language or creating new backgrounds. A more detailed version of phenomenology and its aims can be found here.

Phenomenology has been applied to many other subjects in philosophy, including Metaphysics, EpistemologyPhilosophy of MindLogic and Ethics. Despite this applicability, phenomenologists often emphasise the distinctness of their approach to these subjects; they see phenomenology as a particular way of looking at philosophy which bears on the kind of philosophy that is produced as a result. In the early 20th century it was primarily of interest in Europe and Continental Philosophy, while the recent decades have shown applicability of phenomenology to Analytic Philosophy too.

Early History of Phenomenology

The way we understand phenomenology today can be traced back to how Edmund Husserl envisioned it in the 1901 published Logical Investigations. His teacher Franz Brentano and colleague Carl Stumpf were the precursors who spearheaded ‘intentionality’ in philosophy – i.e. that consciousness is always directed towards something. Brentano made a distinction between ‘genetic psychology’ and ‘descriptive psychology’ – where the former designates study of psychology from a third-person experience and the latter attempts to understand consciousness from the first-person position. Husserl’ early phenomenology took this distinction to heart and formulated what is called Classical Phenomenology (or Realist Phenomenology) with descriptive psychology in mind.

His later word departed from this distinction and moved towards a Transcendental and Eidetic understanding of consciousness and is known as Transcendental Phenomenology. In the 1913 published Ideas, he further develops this thought and establishes a distinction between the act of consciousness (νόησις) and the phenomena towards which consciousness is directed (νοήματα) – a distinction between the idea and meaning. Husserl’s transcendental period is marked by the focus on this ideal or essential structure of consciousness. In this period, too, Husserl’s develops what is called ‘phenomenological reduction’ or ‘bracketing’ with the aim to do away with assumptions of the existence external objects – i.e. to suspend any kind of judgement about what the natural world is like and instead to focus entirely on the analysis of subjective experiences.

Martin Heidegger on the one hand expanded on Husserl’s phenomenology while also forwarding a strong level of criticism. In Being and Time, Heidegger addresses the requirement of experiencing Being itself; where he also puts forward his notion of ‘Dasein’. The notion is notoriously difficult to explain – while literally it means ‘being there’, it is a kind of engagement with the world that humans beings have without resorting to a differentiation between the world and the subject. For Husserl, this level of criticism was vacuous because, while it did bring forward some new ideas, it only raised a few questions without answering them. Notably, Heidegger was only able to raise the question of ontology of Being, without the ability to sufficiently address it. Nevertheless, what became known as Existential Phenomenology of Heidegger led to the dominance of philosophy by French thinkers in the post-WWII Europe.

After the Second World War, phenomenology was divided into three camps – Realist Phenomenology, Transcendental Phenomenology and Existential Phenomenology. Some notable philosophers for each group include:

  • Realist Phenomenology – primarily dominant in the very early days of phenomenology, Realist thinkers included Johannes Daubert and Adolf Reinach (who led the Munich School of Phenomenology), Alexander Pfänder, Max Scheler, Roman Ingarden, Nicolai Hartmann, and most recent Hans Köchler. Naturally the early works of Husserl as well as those of Franz Brentano and Carl Stumpf remain influential to this day.
  • Transcendental Phenomenology – next to Husserl himself, Oskar Becker, Aron Gurwitsch and Alfred Schutz and most recent Amadeo Giorgi. While Transcendental phenomenology is far from being forgotten, majority of phenomenological philosophy has to contend with Heidegger’s critical points forwarded towards Husserl.
  • Existential Phenomenology – The direct followers of Heiddeger were his student Hannah Arendt, and the post-WWII French intellectual circle dominated by Jean-Paul Sartre, Emmanuel Levinas, Gabriel Marcel, Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty – all of these thinkers have changed the engagement with philosophy.

Further Reading

Heidegger, M. (2008). Being and Time, New York: Harper Collins.

Husserl, E. (2008). Logical Investigations, New York: Routledge.

Husserl, E. (2017). Ideas, New York: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (2014). Phenomenology of Perception, New York: Routledge.

Sokolowski, R. (2000). Introduction to Phenomenology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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