Philosophy 234 - 12.3.2 Phenomenology

Phenomenology, very generally, can be defined as the study of how an individual encounters the world through first-person experience. One can dive deeper to identify several areas of inquiry within phenomenology, such as the nature of experience, the use of symbols to convey experience, objective vs. subjective experience, the connection between experience and values, and the experiential importance of religious ideas. Phenomenology argues that the starting point of philosophical reflection must be the realm of experience and not the realm of abstract ideas. Instead of starting with the purely mental idea of a thing, phenomenology suggests that we reflect on how the experience of a thing affects us. For example, a phenomenological approach would encounter a chair from the perspective of the purpose it is serving at that particular moment (perhaps it’s being used as a table) and not what the idea of “chair” may indicate. Phenomenology tasks us with working toward an understanding of various types of experiences involving the thing in question.

Phenomenology and Reality

Phenomenology was largely developed by French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961) and German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). Husserl argued that when one begins the phenomenological investigation, one must suspend the temptation to assert that an object is in essence what it appears to be. Rather, Husserl advocated that we focus on how the thing appears to us. Husserl thus provided the foundation of the phenomenological project: the relinquishing of assumptions about the objects of experience.

On the left, a watercolor portrait shows a serious-looking person with a goatee and moustache. On the right, a photograph shows a relaxed portrait of a person wearing a suit and tie and holding a small book.
Figure 12.8 Edmund Husserl (left) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (right) each made important contributions to phenomenology. (left credit: “Edmund Husserl for PIFAL” by Arturo Espinoza/Flickr, CC BY 2.0; right credit: “Maurice Merleau-Ponty” by philosophical-investigations.org/Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Merleau-Ponty further rejected Descartes’s distinction between the mind and the body. Merleau-Ponty argued that we cannot separate perception or consciousness from the body, as we perceive the outside world through our bodies. The body structures our perception. For example, Merleau-Ponty pointed to psychological studies of phenomena such as phantom-limb syndrome and hallucinations to show that the body mediates our perception of the outside world (Merleau-Ponty 2012).

Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) brand of phenomenology, focusing on the nature of human being (what he referred to as “Dasein”), argued that being by necessity has to occur in the world, as being cannot manifest without a world. This view challenged attempts to discover the nature of being in the realm of theory and ideas. Heidegger proposed that abstract ideas don’t reveal much about being since they are not in the world. If we want to analyze the nature of being, we must not focus on individual instances of beings and our external assumptions about them, but rather examine the world, the realm in which being itself occurs. For Heidegger, what gives rise to the experience of being is more revealing than an investigation of things (Smith 2013).

For example, this view would privilege experiences from everyday life, such as driving to the store or greeting a neighbor on the sidewalk, as more informative on the nature of being than abstract philosophical reflections on transportation or neighborly interactions. As another example, consider the difference between music that aligns with standards of music theory and that which does not. In the case of the former, a song is good because it follows abstract ideas of harmony, uniform time signatures, etc. In the case of the latter, a song may break some or all the rules of music theory but still present a phenomenological reality of experiences of joy, pain, angst, or anger. In fact, Heidegger was very interested in works of art and their function to authentically imitate life as it is and not as abstract concepts say it should be.

Phenomenology and Ethics

There is a strong connection between ethics and phenomenology. The phenomenological vantage point of reflecting on experience engenders a sense of wonder. Some philosophers would assert that ethics has this sort of awe-inspiring quality; we do the “right” action because it compels us. From a phenomenological perspective, the ethical response, like all experience, cannot be reduced to biological, chemical, or logical reasons. That which persuades us to do something we are convinced of to be “good” or “right” makes a claim that transcends either of these. In other words, there is a difference between someone not causing unnecessary harm to another merely because the law prohibits it and a person who has truly been persuaded by the phenomenological presentation of another human that they matter greatly and should not be harmed unnecessarily.

Phenomenology deeply engages the questions of ethics by investigation of the nature of immediate human experience. Allowing oneself to be authentically confronted with the suffering of other humans can cause us to want to fight for those who are suffering, even when abstract conceptual ethics might indicate that this is not our responsibility. For example, a person is not required by any abstract legal or ethical mandate to give one of their kidneys to a stranger. But when they are confronted phenomenologically with the suffering experience of the person who needs the kidney, they may be moved to donate their kidney even though they do not have to.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax