Phenomenology: A Brief Note

Phenomenology refers to a cluster of approaches to philosophical and sociological enquiry and to the study of art, deriving from the work of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). The diversity of approaches that have been described as phenomenology, not least in Husserl’s own work (which continually changed and developed over his career), means that a precise and all-encompassing definition of phenomenology is not easily given. However, something of the flavour of Husserl’s enterprise can be suggested, along with some indication of the reaction of his followers, who include Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and Alfred Schutz.

Phenomenology, as its name suggests, is concerned to describe basic human experience (and hence, a concern with phenomena, a word that is derived from the Greek for ‘appearance’). The point of this is to explore that which is presupposed by the natural sciences and all other claims to knowledge, and which therefore makes those knowledge claims possible. Phenomenology attempts to describe how the world must appear to the nai?ve observer, stripped of all presuppositions and culturally imposed expectations. This is captured in the slogan that phenomenology returns to the ‘things themselves’ (Zu den Sachen (Husserl 1962:74ff.)). Phenomenological enquiry therefore proceeds through the method of ‘bracketing’. Bracketing involves a suspension of belief. The scientist, for example, in observing a colour, observes it in terms of the assumption that it is light waves at a given frequency. Yet this assumption is not available to the untutored observer. It can therefore play no part in the phenomenologist’s description. More radically, Husserl suspends what he calls the ‘natural attitude’. In everyday experience, we take for granted certain assumptions about our experience, not least that there is a real object out there that is being experienced, and that we are unified egos that have that experience. These assumptions are again not given in experience. Crucially, Husserl is not arguing that the real world does not exist. Rather, bracketing draws our attention to the assumptions we (must) make in order to experience the real world at all.

This is clarified by recognising the centrality of another of Husserl’s claims. He argues that all consciousness is intentional. This means that we are always conscious of something (and never just conscious). Thus, I see an oasis, I touch a desk and I long for a pay rise. Note that the objects of which we are conscious need not exist. (So the pay rise may never be granted, and the oasis might be a mirage.) Husserl’s point is that the account of experience cannot be made in terms of its causation by the material object. Rather, the object exists as it does (e.g. as a real oasis or a mirage) because of the meaningful relationship that the observer has to the object. The object, for Husserl, fulfills the expectations of the observer, and in encountering an object we will have a host of expectations that structure our relationship towards it. In Roman Ingarden’s aesthetics, which draws on Husserl, the literary work is treated as a purely intentional object (1973). Concerned with describing genuinely aesthetic attitudes to the work of art, he rejects any identification of the work of art with its material substrate. The work is ascribed an enduring identity, independently of its multiple interpretations. The proper object of appreciation is therefore the content of the artwork, in which the reader ‘concretises’ the work in imaginatively reconstructing what the author has left indeterminate.

Husserl’s followers typically challenge his idealism. His phenomenology concentrates on the experience of a largely disembodied observer. In contrast, Heidegger (and following him, Sartre) begin from the experience of an embodied agent who is practically engaged with the problems of the real, material and contingent world. Thus, for example, Husserl strives to discover the ‘meaning’ of experience as necessary and universal essences. In contrast, for Heidegger, such meaning develops historically as we pursue practical problems in the world. The meaning of a ‘hammer’, to use a favourite Heideggerean example, depends upon the use that human beings make of hammers. The meanings of experience are not then universals to be discovered through phenomenological descriptions, but rather are ascribed to the world by human beings in the pursuit of diverse goals. As Heidegger rather elegantly puts this: ‘The wood is a forest of timber, the mountain a quarry of rock; the river is water-power, the wind is ‘‘wind in the sails’’’ (1962:40–1). Similarly, Merleau-Ponty sees meaning as being ascribed through the body so that belief in the body cannot be bracketed (1962:147).

In the social sciences, a phenomenological sociology has been developed from the work of Alfred Schutz (1899–1959). Again, Schutz (1962) rejects the idealism of Husserl’s own programme, in order to describe human experience as it occurs within an intersubjectively constituted social world (or life-world). The ‘natural attitude’ becomes for Schutz the taken-for-granted assumptions that competent social actors make about the social world and the people they encounter within it. Such actors take for granted the existence of other human beings, and assume a ‘reciprocity of perspectives’. The social actor therefore has a ‘stock-of-knowledge-at-hand’ (in the form of sets of skills, assumptions and ‘typifications’—being the labels and concepts through which he or she orientates his or her actions to each other) that allow them, not merely to recognise and respond to social reality, but actively, if unwittingly, to construct it.


Source: Key Concepts in Cultural Theory Edited by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick,  Routledge 1999.

Categories: Phenomenology

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