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What the Heck Is Phenomenology? Let's Try to Figure It Out

Elliot is a lifelong student of philosophy with an annoying dependence on sarcastic humor to help him get through the day.


Some Background Info

Phenomenology is one of those niche areas of philosophy that is unfortunately dominated by some of the most obtuse and dense writers in history. If you have ever read something from Hegel, you will understand what I am talking about. If you haven't read any of these people then God has spared you a terrible pain. Jokes aside, these incredibly interesting ideas and concepts are unlike most other philosophies. The goals of their proponents are as ambitious as their texts are wordy.

Before we get started, I will make it clear that I am by no means an expert on the subject of phenomenology. Nor even am I particularly versed more than the average student of philosophy. This piece will be partly an attempt to foster interest in the subject, and partly an attempt to strengthen my own understanding of the subject.

So, before Edmund Husserl built his science of Phenomenology proper, the world of western philosophy was occupied with concepts of dualism. This dualism in its most popular iteration, thanks to writers such as Kant and Descartes, was essentially a divide of the structure of the world between "Mind" and "Body". To put it even more simply, the way I like things, it was categorizing the world as either being something that was actually mental or something that was actually physical. Dozens if not hundreds of writers followed with their own arguments for why either side of the duality was correct. This formed the centuries-long battle for supremacy between what are commonly referred to as the empiricists and the rationalists. The former taking the side of the physical and the latter the side of the mental. This sets the stage for the entrance of phenomenology proper to step in and shake things up by claiming that there is a third option that connects the two sides, and makes neither one correct on its own.

Edmund Husserl to the Rationalists and Empiricists: "Hold my lager and watch this"

The term phenomenology and its understanding had been around for quite a while prior to Husserl. The word itself basically means something along the lines of the study of phenomena, or appearances/experience. However, the "science" of phenomenology wasn't given real form until Husserl started it in the early 1900's. The actual definition of Phenomenology, the capital here to indicate the field of study itself, is one of the first hurdles we face in investigating the subject. There are as many definitions of Phenomenology as there are writers on the topic. Here are a couple of basic definitions that I have heard most often: "The descriptive study of experience", "The science of the structure of experience", "Can I stop reading Husserl now? My brain hurts".

Those should give you a basic understanding of what Phenomenology is trying to look at. Now, it is important not to equate this with Psychology, a common comparison. The easiest way to differentiate the two is that Psychology is an explanatory study of experience, while Phenomenology is descriptive. In Phenomenology we do not make any assumptions about how things work and then explain them, we are simply concerned with describing an experience and understanding its structure.

This brings us to that middle option we talked about earlier in response to dualism. That structure of experience, that thing that always connects our experience to something, is called intentionality. This is often put by saying that consciousness is always consciousness of something. This means that whenever we have a conscious thought of something, even simple background consciousness like moving our body automagically, there is always some "object" that the consciousness relates to. Basically, our consciousness is the "subject" and whatever our consciousness is about is the "object". You can start to see here the connection between the mind/body dualism. Crudely put, our mind is the subject and the body, the "thing", is the object.

This intentionality is the backbone of Phenomenology, at least as far as I understand it. Now, here is where things start to get a little convoluted. Pardon my French here, but, shit's bonkers dude.

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You see, it seems that the ambition of Husserl's Phenomenology is to be the founding science of all other science and philosophy. This is similar to Rene Descartes', another fucking incomprehensible writer, attempt to find the basis of certain knowledge which we can use to build out to all other knowledge. Husserl basically comes out of the gate swinging his big words dick in front of all the other fields of study. The way I understand it, Husserl sees the modern sciences as lacking some shared structure which brings them back to the realm of human experience. Apparently, his goal is to find the structures of consciousness which are shared between all minds and use those as the foundation for future sciences. If you are confused or think that sounds like a ridiculous endeavor, you are not alone. If you are completely vibing with this idea and think this all makes sense, you are probably very much alone.

So How Do We Do Phenomenology?

Like I said towards the beginning, Phenomenology is kind of a convoluted field with a lot of abstract ideas and more jargon than some obscure sport like cricket. So, I am just going to try and highlight the practice of Phenomenology as best I can.

It all starts with what Husserl calls the "epoche". More commonly I have heard it called "bracketing". This bracketing is supposed to be the process of cutting out or temporarily ignoring all the assumptions and prejudices you have acquired. This means all the scientific laws, social nuances, and former experiences need to take a backseat for a moment. What we want to do is just observe and describe an experience as it is given to us. We want to look at the structure the experience takes. How are my senses reacting, what is the nature of things as they appear to me? Through this, it is thought that we can systematically study and arrive at the essence of things. The essence here as I understand it means the qualities necessary for a thing to be what it is. For example, the essence of a book would be those qualities which if any were taken away would cause it to no longer be a book to us.

It is through this process of bracketing out our judgments and assumptions, a process called phenomenological reduction, that we should be able to achieve a richer understanding and description of our experience and the form it takes.

Want To Learn More?

HA! Oh, you actually want to try and learn more about this painfully obtuse topic? Well, the three big names you are going to want to investigate are Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. You will find a plethora of works by these philosophers. The catch, however, is that assuming you are not on a next level reading and comprehension ability, these texts will be some of the hardest reading you do. These writers are frequently abstract, obtuse, unnecessarily wordy, and throw out a plethora of jargon without giving much in the way of explanation. That said, if you take up the challenge and dive into the primary and secondary sources, you will come out with some captivating philosophical ideas.


Luna C on July 23, 2019:

Realism is Life. Universally & beyond

David Schildt from Arizona on September 26, 2018:

I'm no expert or student but I get it.

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