What is Phenomenology?

Dr Will Large

This is not a simple course, and we have set ourselves a difficult task of attempting to explain the entirety of phenomenology in five weeks.  Let us first of all, therefore, impose upon ourselves some necessary limits, otherwise we will find ourselves attempting to do the impossible.   We shall only, in the first part of the course, be looking at the work of the founder of the phenomenological movement Edmund Husserl.  You will find, if that thing interests you, his relevant biographical details in   
any introduction to phenomenology.  What interests me is not Husserl the man, but the philosopher.  He believed he only ever wrote introductions to phenomenology.  This does not mean that his work is simple.  He did not mean introduction in this way; rather they are intended to be investigations into the preliminary methodological problems of phenomenology.  In other words, what does it mean to be a phenomenologist?  It is this especially that interests us.

Again, due to the constraints of time, and perhaps your own interest, we will not be able to offer an extensive survey of these first steps in phenomenology, rather we shall be only examining what I think are the key points.  Namely, the philosophical attitude itself, which phenomenology gives us some key insights into, and which Husserl described in his critique of psychologism and the natural attitude, one that is very timely in current obsession with scientific explanations, and the structure of consciousness, which Husserl described in terms of intentionality.  Before I say something briefly about these matters, I   
want to begin you own path into phenomenology through the investigation of the word itself, and in so doing I am following the path of perhaps Husserl s most important student Martin Heidegger, who in Being and Time, tells us that the best way to begin to grasp what phenomenology might be is in the etymology of the word  phenomenology  itself.

Let us briefly summarise Heidegger s description. [1]  We must first of all understand this word, Heidegger says, as description of a method and how we understand this method is through the slogan made famous by phenomenology itself:  back to the things themselves. (Zu den Sachen selbst!).  How are we to understand this slogan?  It means rather than concerning ourselves with all the different philosophical theories, and thinking that doing philosophy is the same as knowing about the history about philosophy, we need to get back to the most ordinary aspects of the world, and rather than imposing upon them our own theoretical prejudices, we need to see how they appear to us as they are.  This is gives a first clue, and perhaps the most important, into the meaning of phenomenology. 

It is a descriptive philosophy that attempts to describe how things appear in without the placing upon them extraneous points of view and opinions.  Husserl writes:

"[t]hroughout phenomenology one must have the courage to accept what is really to be seen in the phenomenon precisely as it presents itself rather than interpreting it away, and to honestly describe it.  All theories must be directed accordingly." [2]
 The essential descriptive nature of phenomenology as a method of philosophy is brought out in the etymology of the word itself.  Heidegger reminds us that the word is made up of two Greek words,  to phainomenon and o logos * Very simply, then, phenomenology can be defined as the giving an account of phenomena.  But let us follow Heidegger's more detailed analysis of these two words.

First of all, the concept of phenomenon: *ta phainomena derives from the Greek verb  phainesthai, which for Heidegger means to make appear or  self showing  (sich zeigen).  Thus we can translate the noun as that which shows itself, the self-showing, or what Heidegger calls the  manifest  (das Offenbare).  The verb is a middle form of *paino that means to bring into the light. The verb belongs to the stem phos that means light - that wherein something is made manifest. Phenomenon can therefore be translated as 'that which shows itself in itself'. They are therefore those things that can be made to lie or brought into the light, which the Greeks also called beings ta onta

The other half the Greek etymology of  phenomenology  is  logos. *The proper meaning of this word, Heidegger argues, has been concealed in the history of philosophy.  It is interpreted as  positing, or judging (das Ubersetzen) and thus as reason,   judgement, conceptuality,  definition, ground,or relation.  For Heidegger, on the contrary, logos is not primarily to be understood as judgement, but as 'letting something be seen; a logos is a  making clear  (das Offenbarmachen) of something.  To speak about something is to make that thing present, to bring it to light  as we might say in English, and the logical forms of judgement are not original, but dependent on this first  making something clear.  To speak the truth about something, in the originary Greek meaning of the word, is not first of all to assert a true judgement, as opposed to a false one, but to make it manifest or to unconceal something.  This notion of  unconcealment , Heidegger argues, is an almost literal translation of the Greek word for truth- aletheia.

In combining these two etymological definitions, Heidegger can arrive at a preparatory conception of phenomenology as follows:  to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.  [3]  This means that phenomenology grasps the phenomena in that manner in which they directly show themselves, rather than importing some theory from the outside that claims to grasp the phenomena in their essence rather than their appearance.  For this reason, Husserl can claim that phenomenology properly executed breaks with metaphysics. [4]  Heidegger himself goes onto argue that this phenomenological method, if correctly performed, is ontology, for what is concealed in phenomena, and therefore requires a phenomenological investigation to bring it to light, is their being.  To correctly understand this move, however, we shall have to wait for the second part of this course that is concerned directly with the work of Heidegger.  At this point, out task is only to understand the work of Husserl.

Let us summarise where we have got to so far.  We are interested in phenomenology as a particular philosophical method.  Heidegger has given us a very broad and general definition of what this method might be.  It is a return to things themselves that describes these things as they themselves appear.  We need to bring ourselves, however, closer to the specific nature of Husserl s own efforts. How would we describe Husserl s phenomenology as opposed to the method of phenomenology in general?  With this question we begin to see the divergence between Heidegger and Husserl, even though the former might see the latter as the inspiration for his own phenomenology. 

This difference, indeed, is the very topic of this course, and as we shall see it contains a very important critique of the scientism and positivism of our own age.  For though Heidegger gives a definition of phenomenology that includes all objects, it clear for Husserl that his own interests are limited.  We can explain this through the context of Husserl s own discovery of phenomenology as a general method for philosophy.  Husserl began his career as a philosopher of mathematics, and his first publications were in this field (works such as the Origin of Geometry, for example). For this reason, he still sought to use   
phenomenology to ground the sciences, and this is what guides his conception of truth.  This means that the cognitive relation to the world was paramount for Husserl. As we shall see, when we come to the second part of this course, Heidegger will argue that this cognitive relation is not the primary way that human beings relate to themselves and other things.

Thus the kinds of phenomena that Husserl is interested in are objects of cognition, and although he presents phenomenology as radical new method in philosophy, the kind of question that he attempts to answer belongs to traditional epistemology, which is how can we legitimate objectivity.  This attempt has two sides: one is positive and the other negative.  We shall be looking at these two approaches in greater detail in the lectures that follow, but it will be useful here, as way of introduction, to briefly describe them. The negative side is the critique of common sense, or what Husserl call the  natural attitude,  which believes that objects simply stand outside of consciousness as something independent (this kind of object Husserl calls  transcendent ) and about which consciousness gains knowledge through sense perception. This kind of positivism, Husserl believed, underlay much scientific theory, though probably expressed in a more subtle manner than in the every day believe in the existence of external objects, but which nonetheless was still not philosophical legitimate.  The correlate of the empirical object was the empirical subject. As much as the existence of the object was left in the dark, then so to was the status of the subject. The other side of the coin of this approach was the belief that logic and thus all objective  truths had their source in psychology.  Thus the correlate to the empirical object was the empirical subject.  Husserl s desire was to replace the philosophical and metaphysical uncertainties of positivism with a legitimate phenomenological support, and he does this through the analysis of consciousness and its intentional structure.  Here we are no longer speaking of the empirical self, but the transcendental one.  It is transcendental subjectivity that constitutes the world and not supposedly real objects.  This transcendental subject remains something utterly mysterious for us at this moment, but it s understanding will be the aim and objective of this first part of the course, until we reach its own critique in the work of Heidegger.  We have begun with phenomenology as a method of description of things, and have ended with the transcendental subject.  This might appear to be a reversal.  Yet what Husserl wants to show us is that if we look at thinks hard enough what we will discover is ourselves.  This to certain extent has always been the message of philosophy through the ages.


[1] See, Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), ?7,  The Phenomenological Method of Investigation,  pp. 49-63.

[2] Edmund Husserl, Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, First Book, translated by F. Kersten, (Dordrecht: Kulwer Academic Publishers, 1982), p. 257.

[3] Being and Time, p. 58.

[4] Jean-Luc Marion describes well phenomenology's pretension, at least in terms of its own self-interpretation, to have exceeded metaphysics in Reduction et donation, (Paris : PUF, 1989), pp. 7-8.

 back to WL page 

 back to list of files