Phenomenology is both a method and a school of contemporary Continental philosophy.  It was ‘fathered’ by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) in the 1920’s, and continued with his students, most notably Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).  Phenomenology is the study of how phenomena appear to us, living-in-the-world subjects; it is an attempt to give a direct description of our experience as it is in itself, without biases of psychological origin and physical causality.  An opening premise, then, is that meaning comes from how the world gives itself to us, and how we give ourselves to the world.  To see how meaning is cooperative, rather than a one-sided imposition, we must “see” the world without biases.

Husserl, while beginning in mathematics and logic, developed this lived-epistemological method of doing philosophy that distinguished various theoretical attitudes through which we make presumptions about meaning.  The Natural Attitude is the everyday way in which we live in the world wherein we presume ourselves independent from the things around us, that is, we egoistically consider ourselves to be the subject amongst a world of objects, the “measurer” or determinant of values, and yet, at the same time, we presume that all things are controlled by various laws; these presumptions of science impose concretion and precision onto the natural world that is wholly foreign to the actual way in which we experience the world.

But, if something upsets our Natural Attitude (e.g., something happens that confounds our presumptions), or we make the concerted effort, we can bracket all of these egoistic and scientific presumptions and adopt The Phenomenological Attitude.  This bracketing is called the epoché and is a method by which to study the world free from bias.  In the phenomenological attitude, one observes a situation in which one is engaged while withholding any judgment about it being good, bad, etc.   One reduces the lived world down to its “essence,” stripping away the quick presumptions and biases, permitting one to study this bare world perfectly free to question everything—even those things assumed by other fields to be unquestionable, like the laws of science, rules of religion, or basic, ‘everyday’ facts (owner, history), etc.  This “reduction” is called the Epoché; it is a “parenthesizing,” wherein we do not destroy the other ways by which to view the world, but we put them in parentheses and do not consider them in this practice.  These other perspectives are not in themselves wrong, nor can they correctly be entirely left out of knowledge. Instead, their temporary phenomenological suspension reveals the nature of meaning to be more complex and dynamic than they can capture and how each of these limited perspectives must be acknowledged as only single modes among many by which to experience and describe the multi-dimensional meaning of the world.

What we discover in this reduction and the subsequent description of our “lived experience” is that meaning is formed in the interplay when the world gives itself to us and we give ourselves to the world.  It permits that which shows itself to be seen from itself in the very way by which it shows itself. 

Husserl instructs us to attend to the things themselves and we honor his maxim by engaging the fluidity of perspectives of experience without bias.  This method reveals the essential meaning of the world by laying bare the nature of experience—that is, meaning is founded by our interaction with the world. According to an etymological interpretation of phenomenology, through phainomenon and logos, by Husserl’s student Martin Heidegger, the things themselves, the essential nature of the world and its contents, present a “seeming” that requires a “seeing” and “discourse” (cf., Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: SUNY Press, 1996), Introduction II, §7, pp. 23-34).  In other words, the world seems, thus requiring a subject to see it, listen to it, and participate in its appearance and elaboration, which forms its meaning. Thus, phenomenology is a methodological study of everything that shows itself and explicates itself to us when we turn our focused gaze upon it and attuned ear to it—which, it reminds us, we do not often do in the hasty course of daily life.

Being primarily epistemological, phenomenology seeks to yield essential descriptions, a better knowledge of the interrelationships of the world and humanity. But this epistemology is not a removed, objective study; it is the knowledge of lived experience, of an embedded, aware subject actively engaged with her environment.  The desired end of its instructed attention to the things themselves is to be able to give a direct description of our experience as it is in itself, born from our interrelation with the world, without our accumulated biases from historical, psychological, or scientific modes of thinking.

Let me offer a little more detail about the importance and difference of phenomenology, these different attitudes in which we live, and what and how we experience in the phenomenological attitude. 

In the Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl elaborates this idea of a complicated world as the Lebenswelt, the life-world or the world of lived experience, in contrast to a world constituted by a mathematization of nature (cf. Edmund Husserl, Crisis of the European Sciences, trans. David Carr (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970), pp. 23 ff.).  Galileo geometrized nature as Descartes and Leibniz arithmetized it wherein, according to the scholar David Carr’s reading, “nature becomes a mathematical manifold and mathematical techniques provide the key to its inner workings” (David Carr, “Husserl’s Problematic Concept of the Life-World,” in Husserl: Expositions and Appraisals, ed. Frederick Elliston and Peter McCormick (Notre Dame, IL: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), pp. 202-12, p. 205).  Science, Husserl argued, sought to find in nature a precision and uniformity that is lacking in its everyday experience.  This exactness is achieved, first, by abstraction from the appearances given to perception and, then, by their interpretation.  The result is that science imposes on nature a precision foreign to any actual experience of it.  Further gilding this faux-precision, Husserl argues, science imposes an ontological claim, to be is to be measurable, and then extrapolates, as consequences, various further epistemological claims, ultimately abstracting nature further and further from actual dirt, rubble, and daffodils.  Science that begins from such a mathematized foundation, bases all its subsequent theories of knowledge upon an abstraction from reality that presumes the world to be uniform and predictable.  Strains of contemporary science reject these presumptions, but the simple encounter with daffodils growing amidst urban rubble on a neglected street corner plainly shows the experience of nature to be of events neither uniform nor predictable, but certainly full of meaning that extends far beyond the empirically measurable.

Phenomenology is, of course, also an abstraction; indeed, its central most important insight is a method of abstraction: the epoché.  But it is acutely aware of its nature and avoids its traps.  That is, precisely because it employs a method of abstraction, it cannot overlook its origin in and the meaningfulness of the Umwelt, the world that is intuitively given and from which one can then abstract all the secondary qualities of appearance.  Husserl names this the “pre-scientific life-world” and, instead of fearing the elusive and vague, non-uniform appearances, it is a perspective that seeks to take in the vagaries and be moved by them.  All that is, is a nebulous flux of appearances, but it is also a world; grasping the cohesion of difference is to give it meaning.  Our attention to the immediately given reveals that the world is not an abstraction, a formula, or a mere, static mental image of nature.  Instead, it shows us that the mathematized world of the early moderns is just one perspective of the world amongst many, from merely one attitude, one mode from the plethora for perception.

In addition to the mathematical attitude, Husserl differentiates those two further, more fundamental modes of perception described above: the natural attitude and the phenomenological attitude.  Remember, the natural attitude is one within the everyday wherein we are automatically directed through pre-given frameworks of intentional relations and naturally accord independent existence to things around us.  In contrast, in the phenomenological attitude, one redirects one’s attention from the objects themselves to the intentional relation in and through which one posits the objects as such. In this attitude, I reconsider my relation to and with the environment.

Husserl’s work Ideas I elaborates this shift from one to the other, through the epoché, by delineating the many dimensions of reflection in each attitude through the experience of a blossoming apple tree (Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, trans. F. Kersten (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1983), §88).  His example excellently illustrates the transformation that consciousness undergoes concerning experience, intentionality, and reflection as a result of adopting the transcendental stance of the phenomenological attitude:

  1. The experience of the tree in full flower, in the natural attitude, is as Erfahrung: the viewer experiences a presentation of the tree as a substance possessing properties of one kind or another—it is a Macintosh, an old, established one, healthy and abundant. In the phenomenological attitude, experience becomes Erlebnis, lived experience: this is a dynamic encounter wherein the ego is engaged in meaning formation—the tree moves me, its beauty affects me—as opposed to passively receiving a static, predetermined presentation of the tree.

  2. Intentionality, in the natural attitude, is presented as if the ego posits the tree as existing entirely distinctly and independently of the consciousness. In the phenomenological attitude, the positional consciousness becomes explicitly intentional, wherein it is not the object itself so much as it is the intentional relation to the object that now becomes the focus of attention.

  3. Finally, reflection, in the natural attitude, intervenes only as a specific re-direction of attention from the object to the subject—I pause my deduction that its cultivar is Macintosh to think about whether or not I like Macintosh apples. In the phenomenological attitude, in contrast, one becomes aware that all consciousness is implicitly reflective in character—I am instantly and intuitively aware of the reflexive, meaningful relation between the tree and me.

In other words, phenomenology provokes a concise shifting of my attention from the things to my interrelation with them on these many levels.  This shift transforms reflection into an awareness of how relation is an implicitly interwoven, yet overlooked, feature of all consciousness.  And, while to know anything about these things around me I invoke my past experiences, phenomenology’s epoché permits me to come to know them more essentially without bias.

Husserl aimed to make this method of the epoché capable of adaptation to diverse questions and fields, including all the hard and social sciences to art and ethics.  His student Heidegger picked up this method, altering it in various ways, to examine the question of being: the most fundamental question of ‘Who am I?’.  (Existentialism was profoundly influenced by the Heideggerian strain of phenomenology.)

Heidegger  begins from his indispensable concept of Da-Sein, “being-there,” which refers to the structures of human existence that make possible an understanding of being (Da-Sein is the Being of a being who is concerned about its Being, that is, questions its own Being).  Like Husserl’s natural attitude, Da-Sein’s preontological understanding of being is embodied in the everyday world.  In this everyday there is a “clearing,” like the phenomenological attitude, wherein things appear in their being as what they are in total—they are not just their sheer matter, but their being is wrapped up with their activity.  For example, a hammer is not just a stick of wood with a metal head and claw; instead, its definition is what it is and what it does, hammer things: this is how the hammer reveals itself to me, as a thing with a function.

Heidegger believed that in order to understand being, one must first understand Da-Sein (this “being-there” the presentation to us of things as they are in themselves).  This means he begins from a phenomenology of lived-experience.  We are not lumps of matter, the mere biological, but are the totality of our existence: our moods, capacity for authenticity, and our involvement with the world and with others.

Heidegger thus directly challenged the Medieval belief that the essence (soul) is prior to the existence (identity) of the person; instead, he inverted it into a formula that read existence is prior to essence.  There is no pre-given human essence; instead, we make ourselves by our involvement in the everyday world.  Thus Da-Sein is not a “soul,” it is a “happening” [Ereignis] that is stretched out between birth and death, or, in Heidegger’s terms, in the “historicity” of “becoming.” 

Da-Sein has three “existentiells,” or characteristics, that are shared by every “existential,” or a specific and local way of living:

  1. (being-in-the-world) Da-Sein finds itself thrown into the world not of its choosing, already delivered to the task of living its concrete contextual life.  This “facticity” of our lives is revealed by our common moods (burden of concern, care, etc.). 

  2. (being-towards-death) Da-Sein is always already taking a stand on its life by acting in the world.  This is “agency,” where human existence is “ahead of itself” by being able to deal with the now and therefore predict the course of the future and by the fact that each of our actions shape our lives into being people or a certain sort.  In other words, Da-Sein is future-oriented with a being-towards-death (everything we do defines our being as a totality). 

  3. (being-with) Da-Sein is always with others, thus, it is “discourse” in the sense that we are always articulating, addressing, and discussing the entities that appear in our concernful absorption in current situations. 

These three existentiells define human existence as a temporal unfolding; our Being is our becoming.  The unity of these three characteristics is “care;” Da-Sein is that being who cares about its Being.  By taking a stand in our own being we make our own identity, we make our value and meaning.

The Existentialists take up and radicalize this Heideggerian phenomenology that focuses on Being and focus it even more precisely on human beings. 

In addition to existentialism developing out of phenomenology, numerous thinkers have taken up phenomenology for its method or as a disposition from which to do philosophy and pursue diverse reflections.  In particular, phenomenology widely informs many thinkers in the philosophy of religion and in phenomenological psychology.  Further, phenomenology is also critical to postmodernism, which both adopts and critiques phenomenological principles.

(More information on ‘other’ phenomenologies to come.)

Phenomenology: A brief overview