The Types and Scope of Phenomenology

To supplement whatever you interested folks might have encountered in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the site for the "Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology," run by Lester Embree (a student of students of Husserl).

This site pulls text from Embree's introduction to the very overpriced Encyclopedia of Phenomenology (only $789!) to characterize some "widely accepted features of the phenomenological approach" (the last of which is, amusingly to me, that "phenomenologists tend to debate whether or not what Husserl calls the transcendental phenomenological epochê and reduction is useful or even possible.").

What interested me here primarily was Embree's breakdown of "tendencies and stages within philosophical phenomenology," which tells you how Husserl fits in with later folks:

(1) Realistic phenomenology emphasizes the search for the universal essences of various sorts of matters, including human actions, motives, and selves. Within this tendency, Adolf Reinach added philosophy of law to the phenomenological agenda; Max Scheler added ethics, value theory, religion, and philosophical anthropology; Edith Stein added philosophy of the human sciences and has been recently recognized for work on gender; and Roman Ingarden added aesthetics, architecture, music, literature, and film.... This tendency... flourished in Germany through the 1920s, but also continues today.

(2) Constitutive phenomenology's founding text is Husserl's ["Ideas"] of 1913. This work extends Husserl's scope to include philosophy of the natural sciences, which has been continued in later generations by Oskar Becker, Aron Gurwitsch, and Elisabeth Ströker, but it is chiefly devoted to reflections on phenomenological method, above all the method of transcendental phenomenological epochê and reduction.

This procedure involves suspending acceptance of the pregiven status of conscious life as something that exists in the world and is performed in order to secure an ultimate intersubjective grounding for the world and the positive sciences of it. Use of this method places constitutive phenomenology in the modern tradition that goes back at least to Kant, and also characterizes the rest of Husserl's work...

(3) Existential phenomenology is often traced back to Martin Heidegger's [Being and Time] of 1927, the project of which was actually to use an analysis of human being as a means to a fundamental ontology that went beyond the regional ontologies described by Husserl.

Hannah Arendt... seems to have been the first existential phenomenologist after Heidegger. It is also arguable that existentialist phenomenology appeared in Japan with Miki Kyoshi and Kuki Shuzou's early work in the late twenties. However, this third aspect and phase in the tradition of the movement took place chiefly in France. The early Emmanuel Levinas interpreted Husserl and Heidegger together and helped introduce phenomenology into France. This period included Gabriel Marcel and was led in the 1940s and 1950s by Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

This third tendency is concerned with topics such as action, conflict, desire, finitude, oppression, and death. Arendt contributed to political theory and the problematics of ethnicity, Beauvoir raised the issue of gender and old age, Merleau-Ponty creatively continued the appropriation of Gestalt psychology in his descriptions of perception and the lived body, and Sartre focused on freedom and literature...

(4) Hermeneutical phenomenology chiefly stems from the method set forth in Heidegger's [Being and Time], according to which human existence is interpretative. The first manifestation of this fourth tendency is Hans-Georg Gadamer... The issues addressed in hermeneutical phenomenology include simply all of those that were added to the agenda in the previous tendencies and stages. What is different is the emphasis on hermeneutics or the method of interpretation. This tendency has also included much scholarship on the history of philosophy and has had extensive influence on the human sciences.

While realistic and constitutive phenomenology arose and first flourished in Germany before and after World War I and existential phenomenology spread out from France after World War II, hermeneutical phenomenology appears to have been most actively pursued in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.

At the very least, this gives you some additional terms and names on which you can search to do more research. It should be clear that, contra the impression I may have given on our Husserl episode, phenomenology is neither some idiosyncratic thing that began and ended with Husserl or is so diffuse that any sort of self-reporting that goes on in psychological research counts as phenomenology in the philosophical sense. I've commented that Dan Dennett, for instance, is all for throwing out our Cartesian reliance on introspection as a source of legitimate knowledge, but in Dennett's article we read for our philosophy of mind episode, he actually uses some kind of phenomenological method to argue against the prima facie results of introspection. Simply "describing experience" isn't going to do it: in Husserl's words you have to get at experience's "structures," which means, in the Dennett case (you can search for "osprey cry" in this article to find exactly what I'm talking about), having repeated experiences of the same apparent object under different circumstances is necessary to adequately get at the phenomena, though certainly our first impression and how it evolves with more information is part of the structure of that overall chain of experience.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. Daniel Horne says

    Nice! A slightly less expensive guide to phenomenology is Dermot Moran’s Introduction to Phenomenology:

    I was going to write a proper book review, but I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say, other than that Moran’s book makes for better reading than does most of the books it surveys! It’s the only clearly written survey of phenomenology I’ve yet discovered. Also available on Kindle for you e-reader types!

  2. says

    I’m loving this site, and trying to get my head around the contents. As such can the quotes NOT be in such a low contrast grey please? I have to highlight the whole page or change the whole viewing theme of my computer or indulge in more unnecessary technical fiddling…As a trainer of IT: the more hoops to jump through to get to the original action to be taught, the less that is learnt. I’m sure you guys appreciate this…

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      @Paul: We’ll try try to figure out how to edit the WordPress style sheet to make the quotes look better. I’m not a fan of that either.

      @Gary: I feel like I’m pulling answers out of my ass here and will punt the substance of your question down the road to a future phenomenology episode. However, I’ll give it a shot with an example:

      I’m sitting here at a very cluttered desk. How do I want to describe this? This is why I’m not a very good fiction writer: My first instinct is to break things down: to start, e.g. at the left edge of the desk and work to the right… but then, since that presupposes the rough dimensions of the desk, I might want to start with that. Well, that’s just terrible. I’m clearly not giving the experience of sitting at this cluttered desk as I was just having it, but am creating a new experience of trying to organize a particular aspect of my experience (the visual one, focused in front of me) according to one particular property of it (where things lie in space).

      For Heidegger (whom I’ve read more recently and understood better than Husserl, I think), the best description is that as I was sitting at this cluttered desk, my experience wasn’t aimed at the desk at all, but at what I’m writing here, and the purpose for which I’m writing it. The objects on the table are just potential tools to assist me (e.g. the kleenex box, the water glass, the microphone, the external DVD-R drive), and are for the most part irrelevant to my current activity, so they retreat even further into the background than, say, the keyboard I’m using, which I’m likewise not focusing on qua independent object but more or less as an extension of my hands as I type. So there’s a claim about the structure of my experience: that it’s pragmatic and directed, not omni-focused and analytical. That seems obvious, but Dennett at least claims that Descartes-influenced philosophers think of experience as more like a web-cam, just pulling in (whenever it’s on, i.e. we’re not asleep or something) whatever its sensory modalities allow in a stream of consciousness.

      I guess it is my claim that picking out an “accurate” analysis of experience is more of an art than a science, and though Husserl’s model of the egological layers is suggestive to me, I don’t know that it captures my experience any better than Heidegger’s does as I’ve described it above as pragmatic. Yes, I can analyze aspects of my experience into different types of effects, and try to, for instance, separate my perception of space from my perception of the cultural properties (e.g. that this thing is a drinking glass in front of me), but isn’t that falsifying the experience in a way not much less objectionable than my breaking things down into a field of positional physical objects (my initial attempt at a description here)? Heidegger’s model is, I think, that there’s always a better analysis lurking underneath: that the most underlying, important truths are those that are invisible because they’re so much a part of us, and they retreat in the face of our attempts to analyze them (not that we shouldn’t try; we can always get farther in, even if we can’t say at any point that we’re for sure all the way there). Goodman’s model is that what counts as a good analysis is entirely a matter of why you care. For Sartre (I think), what matters in your analysis is what frees you to intelligent action. For Dennett, we’re ultimately going to get at knowledge through model-building and testing (i.e. from science), and analysis of our experience is overrated; but a good analysis of experience will at least help us to avoid the more egregious errors of history.

      I wish I was in a position to lay out more directly Husserl’s account of essentialism and what I think it means, but I don’t think he was specific enough in Cartesian Meditations for me to come away with more than what I’ve said: that the “essences” there are structures of what appear in experience, so we can say, e.g. that the essence of a “physical object” is to transcend any given perception of it in determinate ways (e.g. it will have a back), and the essence of a number is to act perfectly in its mathematical contexts and to relate to counted things in the way that it does. I’d have to look more closely about how Plato and Aristotle talk about essences to say to what degree this resembles what they’re after. Certainly Husserl is not going to talk about the essence of human nature in the way those guys do, but that’s maybe just because he doesn’t talk about that level of generality: about ethics and the like. The closest he comes in this text is to talk about how characteristics of the ego like beliefs or habits seem to persist over time, in effect constituting the empirical ego as a supposed substrate for why these things would persist over time even though we don’t actually observe them persisting, i.e. see them all the time in the way we see the passage of time itself or some other phenomena.

  3. Gary Chapin says

    File this one under “applicability to situation, current.” Well done, Mark. So, the crux of the biscuit is this: simply reporting on an experience — or “lived experience,” in the jargon, as if there’s another kind (perhaps an “essential” experience?) — does not make a piece phenomenology “in the philosophical sense.” So what does? And, in the the social sciences (such as my own field of education), do they care “in the philosophical sense?” Qualitative researchers insist that their work is more than journalism, but does it — can it? can anything? — reach Husserl’s or Heidegger’s bar set for phenomenology.

    Also, hey, is “the transcendental phenomenological epochê and reduction … useful or even possible.” That is a riot! Wow, am I wrestling with that one. Tell me (PLEASE) if I’m not getting this. Husserl’s project is to begin from the phenomenon, sans theory, sans metaphysics. In fact, metaphysics is made irrelevent. It is [bracketed]. He is NOT talking ontologically. BUT he then reaches for metaphysics by striving to understand the “essence” of the phenomenon: sort of a reverse Plato? Is this simply the quest for “chairness” again? Above, you imply (or Dennett does) that this “essence” might be nothing more than shared, salient characteristics of repeated instances of the phenomenon. Really? That’s it? I feel like Husserl was reaching farther, but I feel that, by reaching farther, he was undermining his project.

    But, again, I have no idea if my Doctoral Committee will care. This was an extraordinarily helpful post. Thanks.

  4. Gary Chapin says

    Quite the public service you supply here, Mark. Thank you! This is especially helpful because I have a hard time when I sits and thinks. Conversation is a much more effective way for me to learn. Just a couple of additional points:

    1) Your first paragraph does, indeed strike me as describing the phenomenon of trying to describe a phenomenon, and on that meta-level is very effective. Can one be a more or less effective phenomenologist depending on the content one is trying to describe?
    2) Because of your response to my other post on the Husserl episode, I’ve gone to the library and gotten “Nausea.” I do find it interesting to imagine that a philosophy might a point where the most effective way to communicate it may be through an artwork, rather than some linear, propositional form.
    3) I feel as if Plato would talk about essences deductively, starting with chairness, while Husserl would work inductively, starting with the chair. Maybe not. Plato’s description of the essential human — can’t quite remember, featherless biped with fingernails? — was, if grotesque, inductively arrived at.

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