AskDefine | Define phenomenology

Dictionary Definition

phenomenology n : a philosophical doctrine proposed by Edmund Husserl based on the study of human experience in which considerations of objective reality are not taken into account

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  • (UK): /fɪˌnɒmɪˈnɒləgi/, /fI%nQmI"nQl@gi/
  • (US): , /fɪˌnɑməˈnɑləgi/, /fI%nAm@"nAl@gi/


  1. A philosophy based on the intuitive experience of phenomena, and on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as consciously perceived by conscious beings.
  2. A movement based on this, originated about 1905 by Edmund Husserl.

Extensive Definition

Phenomenology has at least three main meanings in philosophical history: one in the writings of G.W.F. Hegel, another in the writings of Edmund Husserl in 1920, and a third, deriving from Husserl's work, in the writings of his former research assistant Martin Heidegger in 1927.
  • For G.W.F. Hegel, phenomenology is an approach to philosophy that begins with an exploration of phenomena (what presents itself to us in conscious experience) as a means to finally grasp the absolute, logical, ontological and metaphysical Spirit that is behind phenomena. This has been called a "dialectical phenomenology".
  • For Edmund Husserl, phenomenology is "the reflective study of the essence of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view." Phenomenology takes the intuitive experience of phenomena (what presents itself to us in phenomenological reflexion) as its starting point and tries to extract from it the essential features of experiences and the essence of what we experience. When generalized to the essential features of any possible experience, this has been called "transcendental phenomenology". Husserl's view was based on aspects of the work of Franz Brentano and was developed further by philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Max Scheler, Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Emmanuel Levinas.
  • Martin Heidegger believed that Husserl's approach overlooked basic structural features of both the subject and object of experience (what he called their "being"), and expanded phenomenological enquiry to encompass our understanding and experience of Being itself, thus making phenomenology the method (in the first phase of his career at least) of the study of being: ontology.
The difference in approach between Husserl and Heidegger influenced the development of existential phenomenology and existentialism in France, as is seen in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Munich phenomenologists (Johannes Daubert, Adolf Reinach, Alexander Pfänder in Germany and Alfred Schütz in Austria), and Paul Ricoeur have all been influenced. Readings of Husserl and Heidegger have also been crucial elements of the philosophies of Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler.

Historical overview of the use of the term

Although the term "phenomenology" was used occasionally in the history of philosophy before Husserl, modern use ties it more explicitly to his particular method. Following is a list of thinkers in rough chronological order who used the term "phenomenology" in a variety of ways, with brief comments on their contributions:
  • David Hume (1711 – 1776) Scottish philosopher, called variably a skeptic or a common sense advocate. While this connection is somewhat tenuous, Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature, does seem to take a phenomenological or psychological approach by describing the process of reasoning causality in psychological terms. This is also the inspiration for the Kantian distinction between phenomenal and noumenal reality.
  • Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), in the Critique of Pure Reason, distinguished between objects as phenomena, which are objects as shaped and grasped by human sensibility and understanding, and objects as things-in-themselves or noumena, which do not appear to us in space and time and about which we can make no legitimate judgements.
  • G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) challenged Kant's doctrine of the unknowable thing-in-itself, and declared that by knowing phenomena more fully we can gradually arrive at a consciousness of the absolute and spiritual truth of Divinity. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, published in 1807, prompted many opposing views including the existential work of Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as the materialist work of Marx and his many followers.
  • Carl Stumpf (1848-1936), student of Brentano and mentor to Husserl, used it to refer to an ontology of sensory contents.
  • Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) established phenomenology at first as a kind of "descriptive psychology" and later as a transcendental and eidetic science of consciousness. He is considered as the founder of contemporary phenomenology.
  • Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) criticized Husserl's theory of phenomenology and attempted to develop a theory of ontology that led him to his original theory of Dasein, the non-dualistic human being.
Later usage is mostly based on or (critically) related to Husserl's introduction and use of the term. This branch of philosophy differs from others in that it tends to be more "descriptive" than "prescriptive".

Husserl and the origin of his phenomenology

Husserl derived many important concepts that are central to phenomenology from the works and lectures of his teachers, the philosophers and psychologists Franz Brentano and Carl Stumpf. An important element of phenomenology that Husserl borrowed from Brentano was intentionality, the notion that the main characteristic of consciousness is that it is always intentional. Intentionality, which could be summarised as the "directedness" or "aboutness" of mental acts, describes the basic structure of consciousness. Every mental act is directed at or contains an object — the so-called intentional object. Every belief, desire, etc. has an object to which it refers, i.e. the believed, the desired. The property of being intentional, of having an intentional object, is the key feature which distinguishes mental/psychological phenomena from physical phenomena (objects), because physical phenomena lack intentionality altogether. Intentionality is the key concept by means of which phenomenology attempts to overcome the subject/object dichotomy prevalent in modern philosophy.

Precursors and influences

Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen (1900/1901)

In the first edition of the Logical Investigations, still under the influence of Brentano, Husserl describes his position as "descriptive psychology". Husserl analyzes the intentional structures of mental acts and how they are directed at both real and ideal objects. The first volume of the Logical Investigations, the Prolegomena to Pure Logic, begins with a devastating critique of psychologism, i.e., the attempt to subsume the a priori validity of the laws of logic under psychology. Husserl establishes a separate field for research in logic, philosophy and phenomenology, independently from the empirical sciences.

Transcendental phenomenology after the Ideen (1913)

Some years after the publication of the Logical Investigations, Husserl made some key elaborations which led him to the distinction between the act of consciousness (noesis) and the phenomena at which it is directed (the noemata).
  • "noetic" refers to the intentional act of consciousness (believing, willing, etc.)
  • "noematic" refers to the object or content (noema) which appears in the noetic acts (respectively the believed, wanted, hated and loved ...).
What we observe is not the object as it is in itself, but how and inasmuch it is given in the intentional acts. Knowledge of essences would only be possible by "bracketing" all assumptions about the existence of an external world and the inessential (subjective) aspects of how the object is concretely given to us. This procedure Husserl called epoché.
Husserl in a later period concentrated more on the ideal, essential structures of consciousness. As he wanted to exclude any hypothesis on the existence of external objects, he introduced the method of phenomenological reduction to eliminate them. What was left over was the pure transcendental ego, as opposed to the concrete empirical ego. Now (transcendental) phenomenology is the study of the essential structures that are left in pure consciousness: this amounts in practice to the study of the noemata and the relations among them. The philosopher Theodor Adorno criticised Husserl's concept of phenomenological epistemology in his metacritique "Against Epistemology", which is anti-foundationalist in its stance.
Transcendental phenomenologists include: Oskar Becker, Aron Gurwitsch and Alfred Schutz.

Realist phenomenology

After Husserl's publication of the Ideen in 1913, many phenomenologists took a critical stance towards his new theories. Especially the members of the Munich group distanced themselves from his new transcendental phenomenology and preferred the earlier realist phenomenology of the first edition of the Logical Investigations.

Existential phenomenology

Existential phenomenology differs from transcendental phenomenology by its rejection of the transcendental ego. Merleau-Ponty objects to the ego's transcendence of the world, which for Husserl leaves the world spread out and completely transparent before the conscious. Heidegger thinks of conscious being as always already in the world. Transcendence is maintained in existential phenomenology to the extent that the method of phenomenology must take a presuppositionless starting point - transcending claims about the world arising from, for example, natural or scientific attitudes or theories of the ontological nature of the world.
While Husserl thought philosophy to be a scientific discipline that had to be founded on a phenomenology understood as epistemology, Heidegger held a radically different view. Heidegger himself phrases their differences this way:
''For Husserl, the phenomenological reduction is the method of leading phenomenological vision from the natural attitude of the human being whose life is involved in the world of things and persons back to the transcendental life of consciousness and its noetic-noematic experiences, in which objects are constituted as correlates of consciousness. For us, phenomenological reduction means leading phenomenological vision back from the apprehension of a being, whatever may be the character of that apprehension, to the understanding of the Being of this being (projecting upon the way it is unconcealed).''
According to Heidegger, philosophy was not at all a scientific discipline, but more fundamental than science itself. According to him science is only one way of knowing the world with no specialized access to truth. Furthermore, the scientific mindset itself is built on a much more "primordial" foundation of practical, everyday knowledge. Husserl was skeptical of this approach, which he regarded as quasi-mystical, and it contributed to the divergence in their thinking.
Instead of taking phenomenology as prima philosophia or a foundational discipline, Heidegger took it as a metaphysical ontology: "being is the proper and sole theme of philosophy... this means that philosophy is not a science of beings but of being.".

Phenomenology and Eastern thought

Some researchers in phenomenology (particularly in reference to Heidegger's legacy) see possibilities of establishing dialogues with traditions of thought outside of the so-called Western philosophy, particularly with respect to East-Asian thinking, and despite perceived differences between "Eastern" and "Western". Furthermore, it has been claimed that a number of elements within phenomenology (mainly Heidegger's thought) have some resonance with Eastern philosophical ideas, particularly with Zen Buddhism and Taoism. According to Tomonubu Imamichi, the concept of Dasein was inspired — although Heidegger remains silent on this — by Okakura Kakuzo's concept of das-in-dem-Welt-sein (being in the world) expressed in The Book of Tea to describe Zhuangzi's philosophy, which Imamichi's teacher had offered to Heidegger in 1919, after having studied with him the year before.
There are also recent signs of the reception of phenomenology (and Heidegger's thought in particular) within scholarly circles focused on studying the impetus of metaphysics in the history of ideas in Islam and Early Islamic philosophy; perhaps under the indirect influence of the tradition of the French Orientalist and philosopher Henri Corbin.

Criticisms of phenomenology

Daniel Dennett has criticized phenomenology on the basis that its explicitly first-person approach is incompatible with the scientific third-person approach, going so far as to coin the term "autophenomenology" to emphasize this aspect and to contrast it with his own alternative, which he calls heterophenomenology. Dennett's criticism reflects a more general attitude among analytic philosophers of mind. Phenomenologists, however, are often quick to point out that the relationship between phenomenological and natural scientific methods has been a major theme in phenomenology since at least Husserl [see The Crisis of the European Sciences], though Dennett makes no real attempt to engage with the work of phenomenologists on this issue. Many proponents of phenomenology argue that natural science can make sense only as a human activity, i.e., an activity which presupposes the fundamental structures of the 'first-person perspective.' While not hostile to the natural sciences per se, many thinkers in the Heideggerian tradition would regard criticisms such as Dennett's metaphysical rather than purely scientific claims, and thus susceptible to the usual criticisms directed at metaphysical theories of all kinds. Powerful defenses of the phenomenological approach against science-inspired reductive naturalism have been made by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor among others.
As part of an ongoing debate with Hubert Dreyfus, John Searle has argued that much of the work done by phenomenologists on the philosophy of mind suffers from what he terms the 'Phenomenological Illusion'. Searle defines the Phenomenological Illusion as the mistake of assuming that what is not phenomenologically present is not real, and that what is phenomenologically present is an adequate description of how things really are. According to Searle, this leads some phenomenologists to make mistaken claims about subjects such as meaning, social reality, functions, and causal self referentiality. Searle himself makes explicit that, defined as the examination of consciousness, he has no problem with phenomenology itself.

List of phenomenologists and phenomenology-derived theorists

  • The IAP LIBRARY offers very fine sources for Phenomenology.
  • The London Philosophy Study Guide offers many suggestions on what to read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject: Phenomenology
  • Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology (Oxford: Routledge, 2000) - Charting phenomenology from Brentano, through Husserl and Heidegger, to Gadamer, Arendt, Levinas, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Derrida.
  • Robert Sokolowski, "Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000) - An excellent non-historical introduction to phenomenology.
  • Herbert Spiegelberg, "The Phenomenological Movement: A Historical Introduction," 3rd ed. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983). The most comprehensive source on the development of the phenomenological movement.
  • David Stewart and Algis Mickunas, "Exploring Phenomenology: A Guide to the Field and its Literature" (Athens: Ohio University Press 1990)
  • Michael Hammond, Jane Howarth, and Russell Kent, "Understanding Phenomenology" (Oxford: Blackwell 1995)
  • Christopher Macann, Four Phenomenological Philosophers: Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty (New York: Routledge: 1993)
  • Jan Patočka, "Qu'est-ce que la phénoménologie?" In: Qu'est-ce que la phénoménologie?, ed. and trans. E. Abrams (Grenoble: J. Millon 1988), pp. 263–302. An answer to the question, What is phenomenology?, from a student of both Husserl and Heidegger and one of the most important phenomenologists of the latter half of the twentieth century.
  • William A. Luijpen and Henry J. Koren, "A First Introduction to Existential Phenomenology" (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press 1969)
  • Richard M. Zaner, "The Way of Phenomenology" (Indianapolis: Pegasus 1970)
  • Hans Köchler, Die Subjekt-Objekt-Dialektik in der transzendentalen Phänomenologie. Das Seinsproblem zwischen Idealismus und Realismus. (Meisenheim a.G.: Anton Hain, 1974) (German)
  • Hans Köchler, Phenomenological Realism: Selected Essays (Frankfurt a. M./Bern: Peter Lang, 1986)
  • Mark Jarzombek, The Psychologizing of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Pierre Thévenaz, "What is Phenomenology?" (Chicago: Quadrangle Books 1962)
  • ed. James M. Edie, "An Invitation to Phenomenology" (Chicago: Quadrangle Books 1965) - A collection of seminal phenomenological essays.
  • ed. R. O. Elveton, "The Phenomenology of Husserl: Selected Critical Readings" (Seattle: Noesis Press 2000) - Key essays about Husserl's phenomenology.
  • ed. Laura Doyle, Bodies of Resistance: New Phenomenologies of Politics, Agency, and Culture. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001.
  • eds. Richard Zaner and Don Ihde, "Phenomenology and Existentialism" (New York: Putnam 1973) - Contains many key essays in existential phenomenology.
  • Albert Borgmann and his work in philosophy of technology.
  • eds. Natalie Depraz, Francisco Varela, Pierre Vermersch, On Becoming Aware: A Pragmatics of Experiencing (Amsterdam: John Benjamins 2003) - searches for the sources and the means for a disciplined practical approach to exploring human experience.
  • Don Idhe, "Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction" (Albany, NY: SUNY Press)
  • Sara Ahmed, "Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects Others" (Durham: Duke University Press 2006)
  • Michael Jackson, Existential Anthropology
  • Being and Nothingness
  • Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi,The Phenomenological Mind. London: Routledge, 2007.



phenomenology in Arabic: تمظهر
phenomenology in Czech: Fenomenologie
phenomenology in Danish: Fænomenologi
phenomenology in German: Phänomenologie
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phenomenology in Turkish: Görüngübilim
phenomenology in Chinese: 現象學

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

aesthetics, axiology, casuistry, cosmology, epistemology, ethics, first philosophy, gnosiology, logic, mental philosophy, metaphysics, moral philosophy, ontology, philosophastry, philosophic doctrine, philosophic system, philosophic theory, philosophical inquiry, philosophical speculation, philosophy, school of philosophy, school of thought, science of being, sophistry, theory of beauty, theory of knowledge, value theory
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