Phenomenology is a methodology that aims to carefully examine and describe the properties of experience, and to draw philosophical conclusions from these descriptions. Characterised in this way, Phenomenological arguments and methodology are pervasive in philosophy – think, for example, of the role which clear and distinct apprehension of ideas plays in Descartes’ meditations; or of Hume’s argument that causal connections between events are not directly perceived. Contemporary discussion of Phenomenology, however, usually refers to a specific trajectory in the history of philosophy, beginning with Edmund Husserl and passing through Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others.
Thinkers within the Phenomenological tradition differ both as to the structures and properties of experience they emphasise, and the philosophical conclusions they draw from their characterisations of experience. To take just one influential example, consider the fact that objects within the visual field are experienced as having depth – some parts of an object appear nearer to me than others. Merleau-Ponty (1945/2012, pp.265-270) argues that this structural property of visual perception is explained by our status as situated, embodied perceivers, who must take in the spatial properties of objects from a particular vantage point. Moreover, our way of experiencing depth is explained by Merleau-Ponty in terms of our status as agents, who are able to skilfully change their perspective on the object in order to bring different aspects of it into view. Merleau-Ponty thus argues from an observation about the spatial structure of first-person experience to a conclusion about the active, embodied nature of perception.
Other experiential structures on which Phenomenologists have focused include the emotional or affective, temporal, intersubjective and owned character of experience. The diversity of Phenomenological reflections on these topics, and conclusions drawn from them, resist easy summary. An excellent recent introduction to some of the most influential Phenomenologists is Kaufer and Chemero (2015). An alternative treatment, organised by topic rather than by Phenomenologist is Smith (2016).
One important question for Phenomenology is the extent to which it can be integrated with natural science. Whilst some Phenomenologists (such as the early Husserl) aim only to describe and categorize structures and properties of experience, many others (such as the late Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) ascribe a transcendental role to experiential structures identified by their analyses. The entities and categories postulated by natural science are understood as sophisticated abstractions from the lived experience that Phenomenologists characterise. As Merleau-Ponty puts it:
‘I am not a “living being,” a “man,” nor even a “consciousness,” possessing all of the characteristics that zoology, social anatomy, and inductive psychology acknowledge in these products of nature or history. Rather, I am the absolute source. My existence does not come from my antecedents, nor from my physical and social surroundings; it moves out towards them and sustains them.’ (2012, lxxii)
Since contemporary interest in Phenomenology has often focused on mining Phenomenological works for insights that can be integrated with cognitive science, the apparent tension between the naturalist basis of science and the transcendental orientiation of many Phenomenological thinkers has become an important topic, with many debates centering on whether the descriptive fruits of Phenomenology can be divorced from any transcendental commitments of their authors. See Gallagher and Zahavi (2013) and Wheeler (2013) for treatments of this issue, and the talk from our recent conference by Komarine Romdenh-Romluc for a view of the relationship between Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology and science.
For more detailed introductions to Phenomenology, see the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy articles on Phenomenology, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Luis de Sousa’s talk from our recent conference includes a treatment of Husserl’s key concept of the ‘Phenomenological Reduction’ and the way this is taken up by Merleau-Ponty. The recent book by Kaufer and Chemero (2015) is the best introductory overview of Phenomenology for newcomers, while Gallagher and Zahavi (2013) gives a good idea of the ways in which current work attempts to integrate Phenomenology and philosophy of cognitive science.
Gallagher, S., & Zahavi, D. (2013). The phenomenological mind. Routledge.
Kaufer, S., & Chemero, A. (2015). Phenomenology: An Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1945/2012) Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Donald Landes. Routledge.
Smith, J. (2016). Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction. Routledge.
Wheeler, M. (2013). Science friction: Phenomenology, naturalism and cognitive science. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, 72, 135-167.