What is Phenomenology?

The opening of Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception (1945) still rings true today. “What is phenomenology? It may seem strange that this question has still to be asked half a century after the first works of Husserl. The fact remains that it has by no means been answered.” The only different today is the “half a century”; it has now been well over a century since the first works of Husserl and over seventy years since Merleau-Ponty wrote those words. The fact remains that the question has by no means been answered. Merleau-Ponty gave a response, but that response is not a final answer. It is itself open to interpretation, as indicated by the different ways in which Merleau-Ponty’s own thought changed over time and the different ways his thought has been received in contexts like neurophenomenology and ecophenomenology.

What is phenomenology? On one hand, it seems like everybody has their own idiosyncratic definition of phenomenology, which does whatever work you want it to do, like Humpty Dumpty saying that he pays words extra to do what he wants. In that sense, it means almost anything. On the other hand, insofar as there is agreement about what phenomenology is, it is subjected to a rather crude leveling that turns it into a synonym for “study of experience,” thus equivocating between a wide variety of theories and methods in empiricism, pragmatism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, and philosophy of mind. Between Humpty Dumpty phenomenology and crudely leveled phenomenology, the practice of phenomenology is exceptionally loose. Some looseness can be good, facilitating openness to the mystery of what shows itself. However, too much looseness and phenomenology loses its perspicacity. You could blame the excessive looseness on some of the popular (mis)interpreters of figures like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty (pace Evan Thompson and David Abram). The issue is deeper than that though. Part of the problem is that phenomenology has had conflicting meanings throughout its entire history. Because people do not know this history, they are doomed to repeatedly dilute phenomenology in a sea of equivocations. What, then, is phenomenology?

It seems clear that the first use of the term “phenomenology” was in the work of a correspondent of Kant, Johann Heinrich Lambert, who used it as title of the last section of his New Organon (1764), “Phenomenology or Doctrine of Appearance.” For Lambert, phenomenology is an extension of optics, extending and generalizing the science of visual appearances to apply to all human knowledge. Phenomenology is transcendental optics, investigating appearances and proceeding to things themselves. Kant refers to this philosophy as a general phenomenology (Phänomenologie generalis), which he describes as a negative science that must precede metaphysics, determining principles, validity, and limits of sensuality. Later, Kant described this general phenomenology as the investigation of the a priori conditions of knowledge in his transcendental idealism. That’s one sense of phenomenology. This is the basis for Hegel’s phenomenology. In Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), phenomenology is still an inquiry into appearances proceeding toward things themselves, but Hegel fills in the gap that Kant discovered between appearances (manifestation, history) and reality (essence, idea) with the metaphysical paste of Spirit.

In contrast to the German strand of phenomenology initiated with Lambert and Kant, a different sense of phenomenology was emerging around the same time in the work of British thinkers, including John Robison (1739-1805) and others (e.g., Sir William Hamilton, William Whewell). In Robison’s Encyclopaedia Brittannica article “Philosophy” (1798), phenomenology is defined as a “philosophical history,” which describes and classifies observable facts, inferring the rules and laws that bind them. Not a transcendental optics, this kind of phenomenology bears a closer resemblance (according to Robison) to Newton’s optics. This sense of phenomenology shows up in much of 19th-century philosophy and science in England. Insofar as Hegel’s phenomenology is a grouping of data (experiences; manifestations) into classes (historical stages), this sense of phenomenology is like that of Robison and the British, except Hegel does not arrange data according to inferred rules but according to the degree to which they manifest knowledge.

Husserl’s name is associated with phenomenology more than any other. Husserl integrates Kantian and British strands of phenomenological inquiry. During the Göttingen lectures Husserl gave in 1907), he described the phenomenological method as a “critique of pure reason.”  These lectures also introduced Husserl’s concept of the “phenomenological reduction,” which was to become one of the key terms in Husserl’s thought, along with terms developed later, such as “phenomenological epoche” and “eidetic intuition.” The epoche is a graded reduction (or “bracketing”) of the given world, whereby the objective world can be gradually reduced to its constitutive essence. The transcendental epoche reveals the essence of pure consciousness (transcendental consciousness/ego), and a lesser grade of reduction discloses the essential activities of consciousness as they are reflected in eidetic intuition. This genetic phenomenology is complicated in his Husserl’s later articulation of generative phenomenology, where the constitutive function of the transcendental ego is replaced by mutually constitutive relationships between earth-ground and world-horizon (and “world” is co-constitutively home and alien, Heimwelt und Fremdwelt). The influence of the British empiricist tradition on Husserl is evident in his classification of the essences disclosed in eidetic intuition, yet in his attempt to apply phenomenology to the foundation of human knowledge and reason, Husserl’s phenomenology resembles Kant’s.

Heidegger lets the bottom drop out of this schema, opening up Husserlian phenomenology to the withdrawal (Entzug) or the letting-be (Seinlassen) of the things themselves. Along these lines, Heidegger says that phenomenology is not a school, but is rather the possibility of “corresponding to the claim of what is to be thought. If phenomenology is thus experienced and retained, it can disappear as a designation in favor of the matter of thinking whose manifestness remains a mystery.” Isn’t this what Merleau-Ponty was indicating when he asked the question, “What is phenomenology?” That is phenomenology. “What is phenomenology?” is what phenomenology is. To give up the question of phenomenology is to fail to adhere to the questionable appearances of things themselves. To attend to the question of phenomenology is to practice the phenomenology of the question—releasement into the mystery of what shows itself.

The problem with excessively loose interpretations of phenomenology is that they lose the question, trading it in for some answers or for some pretty words. That’s not the worst thing in the world. Some good answers and very pretty words can come out of it. However, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty are great phenomenologists not because of their answers or their verbal styles. Their perspicacity comes from their ongoing attempt, always beginning (again), to attend to the showing of what shows itself: seeing things, seeing through things, seeing things through… “What is phenomenology? It may seem strange that this question has still to be asked…The fact remains that it has by no means been answered.”


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