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Phenomenology: Heidegger & Husserl

Nikki Alberta has a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Alberta. She is a freelance article writer, novelist and blogger.


Phenomenology is a method used by Husserl and then his student Heidegger to carry out philosophy. Their approach though is extremely different. Husserl, like Rene Descartes, thinks we need to start philosophy from a firm foundation without presuppositions; from there we can gain universal knowledge. Husserl is focused on epistemology. Heidegger believes that ontology is more fundamental. To analyze things-in-themselves and being first. Phenomenology is the study of the origin of phenomena (things) in our lived experience. Husserl thinks we are capable of being unbiased, neutral and impartial when we study things. Heidegger believes this to be impossible. For Heidegger, humans always have an interest, words already carry a world of meaning, and thus we are always in a context.




Husserl’s definition of phenomenology is “’a descriptive theory of the essence of pure transcendental experiences… which has its own justification.’”, (Macann, Christopher. P. 31.). Thus for Husserl the phenomenological method “is a method of transcendental reflection, and a considerable amount of time is spent establishing and justifying the relevant concept of reflection.”, (Macann, Christopher. P. 31). Reflection in the sense where the self becomes an object of reflection. In phenomenology we are then to look at our looking. We do not just look at the object, but look at our looking at the object. Scientists do not look at their presuppositions and biases. This attempt to find ‘how to know’ involves consciousness. He is referring to the fact that ‘consciousness’ is consciousness of something. Consciousness is “the foundation of reality in its entirety.”, (Macann, Christopher. P. 32). Consciousness is always directed towards something and it is always an act. Thus we must look at the nature of consciousness and how it directs itself and at the interrelationship between subject and object.

We can look at ‘things’ in the external world, try to be objective, describe its characteristics and properties. The important use of phenomenology is that it goes one step beyond that and looks at how we are looking; looks at how the acts of consciousness works. Any act of consciousness can be looked at whether it be memory, perception or dreams. In regards to memory, phenomenology would be the “bringing to light the meaning-bestowing activity of remembering rather than focusing on the memory as such.” (Macann, Christopher. P. 34).

“I ask myself how the object in question comes to be posited with the meaning which adheres to it as an object… I make the act of imagining or remembering the object of a specific phenomenological investigation with a view to specifying the essence of imaginative or memorial consciousness.”

This involves the epoche; a state of suspension, bracketing and setting aside all presuppositions. “It is the ego which, while it suspends all beliefs about the reality of the world on the grounds that these are not indubitable, discovers itself as the only apodictically certain being.”, (Paris Lecture, p. 4). The phenomenological epoche “is the methodology through which I come to understand myself as that ego and life consciousness in which and through which the entire objective world exists for me.” (Paris Lectures. P. 8). “Everything in the world, all spatio-temporal being, exists for me because I experience it, because I perceive it, remember it, think of it in any way, judge it, value it, desire it.” (Paris Lecture. P. 8).

Starting with an absolute foundation seems only logical. That this foundation is the ego also makes sense since it is really hard to deny that which basically creates existence for us. Without consciousness there would be no ‘I’ and thus nothing else. Therefore it is important to acknowledge the ‘I’ as the interpreter of all things, you cannot escape the fact that it is your subjective person that thinks about anything. If we can take anything from Descartes, it is the idea that the ‘I’ is fundamental and undeniable. Husserl also has a valid point that consciousness is an intentional act. This appears to be an adequate description of how the consciousness is, and it is vital that we look at these acts as objects as well when considering how we know things at all. Of course the ego that we are has been socialized and has naively absorbed vast amounts of interpretation given to us, has may presupposition and biases. The phenomenological reduction then is vital to look at things more clearly. The attempt to eliminate all presuppositions, biases and so forth is very important when looking at anything. However, it does not seem conceivable that we could eliminate all of them, as we could not possibly be aware of all of them. Nevertheless, the process is important in eliminating all the clutter and letting us become as objective and neutral as possible.

This is contrast to everyday existence which Husserl states is naïve for it is “the immersion in the already-given world and consists of experiencing, thinking, valuing, acting.” (Paris Lecture. P. 36). All of which do not “explain the intentional acts from which ultimately everything originates.” (Paris Lectures. P. 36). “In the natural attitude, experience is taken to be a presentation of the object (or the world) as it is in itself, that is, of the object as a substance possessing properties of one kind or another.” (Macann, Christopher. P. 33). We can see then when it comes to knowledge and to the gaining there of (for the sciences) Husserl’s phenomenological method makes us look at how he know things, and makes us acknowledge and bracket presuppositions to be more objective. Thus phenomenology according to Husserl is useful in gaining any knowledge. It is refining our ability to reason, and expanding it to reflect on our own thought process.





Heidegger’s phenomenology is concerned with ontology. It has no real application in improving the method of how we gain knowledge, because Heidegger believes the question of Being is more fundamental than how we know things. For Heidegger phenomenology is “to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself.” (Macann, Christopher. P 69). All ontology of the past, “no matter how rich and tightly knit a system of categories it has at its disposal, remains fundamentally blind and perverts its innermost intent if it has not previously clarified the meaning of Being sufficiently and grasped this clarification as its fundamental task.” (Being and Time, p. 53). Most ontology theories start with an assumption of Being and go from there, and never really delve into Being itself. According to Heidegger most ontology theories cover over Being, to the point that Heidegger states “Ontology is possible only through phenomenology.” (Being and Time, p. 84).
To relate to this question of Being though he believes we must look at it through our own being-there or Dasein. Since questions are “a seeking. Every seeking takes its direction beforehand from what is sought (Being and Time,p. 45), the questions also say something about those who ask them. An important aspect of our Dasein is that fact that we question. Dasein “is ontologically distinguished by the fact that in its Being this being is concerned about its very being.” (Being and Time, p. 54). In our average-everydayness we have a pre-understanding of Being because we are part of it. This natural attitude is here our starting place.

“In place of the Husserlian procedure which moves from the world of the natural attitude up to a higher, transcendental plane with a view to bringing to light the transcendental structures constitutive of the objectivity of the entities encountered in the natural attitude, we find an alternative procedure which moves from the ontic level down to a deeper, ontological plane with a view to bring to light the ontological structures constitutive of the being of the entities in question.” (Macann, Christopher. P. 63.)
Part of our being-in-the-world is throwness. We find we are always in a context which already has meaning attached to it, a particular time, place and so forth. It is important to Heidegger to look into the structures that make us human. “Only when the fundamental structures of Dasein are adequately worked out with explicit orientation toward the problem of Being will the previous results of the interpretation of Dasein receive their existential justification.” (Being and Time, p. 60).

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Heidegger begins by looking at our average everydayness, to reveal how Dasein is in-the-world. Dasein is unique in that it has death awareness and therefore has the perception of time. Death being the possibility that cancels all possibilities which then causes fear and anxiety. In response to this we alienate ourselves and let ourselves become detached. Technology as a way of revealing being brings us farther away from ourselves and thus from Being. Heidegger, unlike Husserl, thinks Descartes helps Being become hidden with the centre focused on ‘I’.

Inspecting our Dasein and how we live is a useful thing to do. Out of this analysis comes his ideas on how we relate to technology, art and the environment. Art reveals Being, but reflects our being as well. For Heidegger we cannot be completely objective and get ‘out’ of ourselves. Later Heidegger realizes that looking through Dasein might not be the way to find Being, but it does help us understand ourselves. He then talks about how we should let Being reveal itself to us, as in through art. Like a poem that ‘speaks’ to you.
We fall into everydayness when we hide from Being. What we should be doing is living in Care. Being ‘at home’ in our environment, and taking care. This element as stated above is rather existential in nature; mostly because he does talk about how we are in the world. Death awareness gives our awareness of time. This being aware of the future and looking to the future makes us have concern or Care for it. Things that disrupt us out of everydayness and make us wonder about things are the failure of tools, certain moods, and death awareness. We can probably all relate to these as being accurate to our human nature. It is part of our nature (instrumentality) to just use tools. I for instance use a computer directly for all my papers. I choose to do so, because typing flows with my consciousness, (Heidegger would point out that we should not limit our possibilities when we choose a piece of technology). When my computer fails (as it did recently) this startles me out of my flow of awareness. Death awareness, as when someone you know dies or when you are confronted with an ailment that makes you aware of your mortality naturally that is when fundamental questions smack you in the face. As do moods; depression makes almost anyone philosophical. All these make you step back and reflect on things. This is not like Husserl’s transcendental reflection though, you don’t pull yourself out of being and look down at yourself objectively. You are startled out of your everydayness and feel the need to re-evaluate everything.

In this evaluating of lived experience Heidegger outlines what is authentic and inauthentic. Authenticity is recognized in our temporality and anxiety and moving into a mode of caring as a result. Inauthenticity gets caught up in time, flees as a result of anxiety and falls into everydayness. When one is in the mode of caring one recognizes the possibility of choices out there and has concern over how to interact in the world. When one is caught in everydayness, they take the meaning given to them, and fall into calculative thinking which does not have a concern for the environment around them. Thus we can see how technology in everydayness can have negative consequences as opposed to taking a caring approach where one is naturally concerned with the environment, as it is their environment, their home. This comes out in his notion of dwelling, which he uses the word in away that brings out the aspect of our making ourselves at home. It is not really impractical, in that these are both modes that we take; both are possibilities. Sometimes it is easy to agree that technology, fixed ideas, and abstract entities bring us away form lived experience. They almost kill the lived experience. Thus talking in the way Heidegger does through our lived experience, describing what is common to Dasein reveals more about how we actually are than does flat theories. On the other side though, as pointed out above, Husserl’s phenomenology aides us in broadening the way we gain knowledge, and to look at that whole process. One tells us about how we are, and the other how we know. The fact that we do not find Being should not disillusion us, since the searching itself reveals our being (as does art, poems, music). And reflection on our being aids us in how we live and relate to other beings. Which is important in that we are always in relation to other beings.

Also an important element in Heidegger’s phenomenology is language and the analysis thereof. It is an example of how we are born into a context, all the words we use to describe thing have a set meaning, and a personal meaning to ourselves that evolves. Thus it is an important process to understand how we use these words and what there meaning is. So Heidegger is very particular of the words he chooses, and there history.



Both Heidegger and Husserl use the phenomenological method, but each for a different purpose and going in different direction. One, however, really does not have to exclusively choose epistemology over ontology or vice versa. They can be done together, and thus both reveal interesting valid views. Both describe what they are discussing; Heidegger describes the nature of Dasein, and Husserl the nature of consciousness. Both carry out an analysis of these aspects quite well. Both are going through lived experience, looking at things-in-themselves, and view things thus empathetically. Husserl diverges into a more detailed into the theory of intentionally, the acts of consciousness as that is his base. And a main difference is Husserl’s belief in the eidetic reduction, which Heidegger think is not possible. Heidegger as Dasein is his base, goes more into Dasein’s nature. He thinks the reduction is useless since we are already in a ‘world’ we must look through ourselves to see what makes us the way we are. Thus both are useful in broadening the perspective in different areas. Phenomenology, as a method, is useful in that it looks through things as the lived experience. And really, we must acknowledge that how we see things and how we know things comes from our being or our ego; therefore it is only logical that we look through things that way. But while looking though our humanness, we must be aware that we are doing so. Phenomenology is great for looking at things in a more useful angle, and broadens our perspective on things. It can be used for any human experience. Its only limitation and our limitation anyway, are that it cannot claim to evaluate anything out of our human experience. We cannot claim to know for instance what it is like to be a tree, like some environmentalists claim to attempt (They criticize people for being to anthropocentric.). It really is the only way we can view things whether we like it or not. Any theory we create is created from our lived experience, and then logically stretched to the rest of the universe- which is an assumption. Phenomenology merely recognizes the limitation and does not stretch its analysis beyond it. It also though pays critical attention to its own process to prevent such assumptions.


Macann, Christopher. “Four Phenomenological Philosophers”. Routledge, London, 1993.

The Paris Lectures Husserl, Edmund.
Being and Time. Heidegger, Martin


Nikki Albert (author) from Canada on December 13, 2010:

Dasein is our own being in the world, our own knowledge of death and perception of time. Personally, I do think time is a human concept. When it comes it Hesserl and Heidegger, I'd take Heidegger any day! No, I don't think I've read Time and Narrative.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on December 13, 2010:

"Dasein is unique in that it has death awareness and therefore has the perception of time."

I thought time is a notion invented by us (humans). I think you mentioned something along those lines in the blog about Stephen Hawking. Thus, Dasein should not have anything to do with time.

Bloody Heideger ... he tortured me in university lol.

Have you ever read Time and Narrative by Paul Ricoeur?

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