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Introduction Back to Top

Phenomenology is a broad discipline and method of inquiry in philosophy, developed largely by the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, which is based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events ("phenomena") as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness, and not of anything independent of human consciousness.

It can be considered a branch of Metaphysics and of Philosophy of Mind, although many of it proponents claim that it is related to, but distinct from, the other key disciplines in philosophy (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Logic and Ethics), and that it represents more a distinct way of looking at philosophy which has repercussions on all of these other fields. It has been argued that it differs from other branches of philosophy in that it tends to be more descriptive than prescriptive. It is only distantly related to the epistemological doctrine of Phenomenalism (the theory that physical objects do not exist as things in themselves but only as perceptual phenomena or bundles of sense-data situated in time and in space).

Phenomenology is the study of experience and how we experience. It studies structures of conscious experience as experienced from a subjective or first-person point of view, along with its "intentionality" (the way an experience is directed toward a certain object in the world). It then leads to analyses of conditions of the possibility of intentionality, conditions involving motor skills and habits, background social practices and, often, language.

Experience, in a phenomenological sense, includes not only the relatively passive experiences of sensory perception, but also imagination, thought, emotion, desire, volition and action. In short, it includes everything that we live through or perform. Thus, we may observe and engage with other things in the world, but we do not actually experience them in a first-person manner. What makes an experience conscious is a certain awareness one has of the experience while living through or performing it. However, as Heidegger has pointed out, we are often not explicitly conscious of our habitual patterns of action, and the domain of Phenomenology may spread out into semi-conscious and even unconscious mental activity.

Many Analytic Philosophers, including Daniel Dennett (1942 - ), have criticized Phenomenology on the basis that its explicitly first-person approach is incompatible with the scientific third-person approach, although Phenomenologists would counter-argue that natural science can make sense only as a human activity which presupposes the fundamental structures of the first-person perspective. John Searle has criticized what he calls the "Phenomenological Illusion" of assuming that what is not phenomenologically present is not real, and that what is phenomenologically present is in fact an adequate description of how things really are.

History of Phenomenology Back to Top

The term "phenomenology" is derived from the Greek "phainomenon", meaning "appearance". Hence it is the study of appearances as opposed to reality, and as such has it roots back in Plato's Allegory of the Cave and his theory of Platonic Idealism (or Platonic Realism), or arguably even further back in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. To differing extents, the methodological scepticism of René Descartes, the British Empiricism of Locke, Hume, Berkeley and Mill, and the Idealism of Immanuel Kant and the German Idealists all had a hand in the early development of the theory.

The term was first officially introduced by Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728 - 1777) in the 18th Century, and was subsequently used by Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and especially by G. W. F. Hegel in his "Phenomenology of Spirit" of 1807.

Phenomenology, as it is known today, however, is essentially the vision of one man, Edmund Husserl, which he launched in his "Logical Investigations" of 1901, although credit should also be given to the pioneering work on intentionality (the notion that consciousness is always intentional or directed) by Husserl's teacher, the German philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano (1838 - 1917) and his colleague, Carl Stumpf (1848 - 1936).

Husserl formulated his classical Phenomenology first as a kind of "descriptive psychology" (sometimes referred to as Realist Phenomenology) and later as a transcendental and eidetic science of consciousness (Transcendental Phenomenology). In his "Ideas" of 1913, he established the key distinction between the act of consciousness ("noesis") and the phenomena at which it is directed (the "noemata"). In his later transcendental period, Husserl concentrated more on the ideal, essential structures of consciousness, and introduced the method of phenomenological reduction specifically to eliminate any hypothesis on the existence of external objects.

Martin Heidegger criticized and expanded Husserl's phenomenological enquiry (particularly in his "Being and Time" of 1927) to encompass our understanding and experience of Being itself, and developed his original theory of "Dasein" (the non-dualistic human being, engaged in the world). According to Heidegger, philosophy is not at all a scientific discipline, but is more fundamental than science itself (which to him is just one way among many of knowing the world, with no specialized access to truth). Heidegger, then, took Phenomenology as a metaphysical ontology rather than as the foundational discipline Husserl believed it to be. Husserl charged Heidegger with raising the question of ontology but failing to answer it, but Heidegger's development of Existential Phenomenology greatly influenced the subsequent French Existentialism movement.

Other than Husserl and Heidegger, the most famous of the classical Phenomenologists were Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961), Max Scheler (1874 - 1928), Edith Stein (1891 - 1942), Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889 - 1977), Alfred Schutz (1899 - 1959), Hannah Arendt (1906 - 1975) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906 - 1995).

Types of Phenomenology Back to Top

There are three main types of Phenomenology:

  • Realist Phenomenology (or Realistic Phenomenology): Husserl's early formulation, based on the first edition of his "Logical Investigations", which had as its goal the analysis of the intentional structures of mental acts as they are directed at both real and ideal objects. This was the preferred version of the Munich Group at the University of Munich in the early 20th Century, led by Johanes Daubert (1877 - 1947) and Adolf Reinach (1883 -1917), as well as Alexander Pfänder (1871 - 1941), Max Scheler (1874 - 1928), Roman Ingarden (1893 - 1970), Nicolai Hartmann (1882 - 1950) and Hans Köchler (1948 - ).
  • Transcendental Phenomenology (or Constitutive Phenomenology): Husserl's later formulation, following from his 1913 "Ideas", which takes the intuitive experience of phenomena as its starting point, and tries to extract from it the generalized essential features of experiences and the essence of what we experience, setting aside questions of any relation to the natural world around us. Transcendental Phenomenologists include Oskar Becker (1889 - 1964), Aron Gurwitsch (1901 - 1973) and Alfred Schutz (1899 - 1959).
  • Existential Phenomenology: Heidegger's expanded formulation, as expounded in his "Being and Time" of 1927, which takes as read that the observer cannot separate himself from the world (and so cannot have the detached viewpoint Husserl insisted on). It is therefore a combination of the phenomenological method with the importance of understanding man in his existential world. Existential Phenomenologists include Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt (1906 - 1975), Emmanuel Levinas (1906 - 1995), Gabriel Marcel (1889 - 1973), Paul Ricoeur (1913 - 2005) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 - 1961).
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