In its most basic form, phenomenology is the study of the consciousness from a first-person perspective, as opposed to, but not exclusive of, a third-person perspective like the neurological perspective. It is the attempt to reflect on pre-reflexive experience to determine certain properties of, or structures in, consciousness. Husserl considered it to be a proper first philosophy, and wanted it to be philosophy as rigorous science.

Husserl derived many important concepts central to phenomenology from the works and lectures of his teachers, the philosophers and psychologists Franz Brentano and Carl Stumpf. An important element of phenomenology that Husserl borrowed from Brentano was intentionality (often described as "aboutness"), the notion that consciousness always is consciousness of something. The object of consciousness is called the intentional object, and this object is constituted for consciousness in many different ways, through for instance perception, memory, protention, retention, signification, etc. Throughout these different intentionalities, though they have different structures and different ways of being "about" the object, an object is still constituted as the same identical object; consciousness is directed at the same intentional object in direct perception as it is in the immediately following retention of this object and the eventual remembering of it.

It should be clarified right from the start that even though many of the phenomenological methods involve various reductions, phenomenology is essentially anti-reductionistic; the reductions are mere tools to better understand and describe the workings of consciousness, not to reduce any phenomenon to these descriptions. In other words, when a reference is made to a thing's essence or idea, or when one details the constitution of an identical coherent thing by describing what one "really" sees as being only these sides and aspects, these surfaces, it does not mean that the thing is only and exclusively what is described here: The ultimate goal of these reductions is to understand how these different aspects are constituted into the actual thing as experienced by the person experiencing it. Phenomenology is a direct reaction to the psychologism and physicalism of Husserl's time.

Special terminology


Intuition in phenomenology refers to those cases where the intentional object is present in direct perception, where the intention is "filled," so to speak. For instance, having a cup of coffee in front of you, seeing it, feeling it - these are all filled intentions, and the object is then intuited. If you don't have the object in direct perception, as when you remember it or if you fantasise about it, the object is not intuited, but still intended. This also goes for "theoretical" objects like mathematical objects. Filled intentions about these kinds of objects can be such things as thought and imagination.


The lived-body is your own body as experienced by yourself, as yourself. Your own body manifests itself to you mainly as your possibilities of acting in the world. It is what lets you reach out and grab something, for instance, but it also, and more importantly, allows for the possibility of changing your point of view. This helps you differentiate one thing from another by the experience of moving around it, seeing new aspects of it (often referred to as making the absent present and the present absent), and still retaining the notion that this is the same thing that you saw other aspects of just a moment ago (it is identical).


In phenomenology, empathy refers to the experience of another human body as another subjectivity: You see another body, but you immediately perceive another subject. In Husserl's original account, this was done by apperception built on the experiences of your own lived-body which you experience in a dual way, both as object (you can touch your own hand) and as your own subjectivity (you are being touched). This experience of your own body as your own subjectivity is then applied to the experience of another's body, which, through apperception, is constituted as another subjectivity. This experience of empathy is important in the phenomenological account of intersubjectivity.

Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen (1900/1901)

In the first edition of the Logical Investigations, still under the influence of Brentano, Husserl describes his position as "descriptive psychology." Husserl analyzes the intentional structures of mental acts and how they are directed at both real and ideal objects. The first volume of the Logical Investigations, the Prolegomena to Pure Logic, begins with a devastating critique of psychologism, i.e., the attempt to subsume the a priori validity of the laws of logic under psychology. Husserl establishes a separate field for research in logic, philosophy, and phenomenology, independently from the empirical sciences.

Transcendental phenomenology after the Ideen (1913)

Some years after the publication of the Logical Investigations, Husserl made some key elaborations which led him to the distinction between the act of consciousness (noesis) and the phenomena at which it is directed (the noemata).

"noetic" refers to the intentional act of consciousness (believing, willing, etc.) "noematic" refers to the object or content (noema) which appears in the noetic acts (the believed, wanted, hated, and loved ...). What we observe is not the object as it is in itself, but how and inasmuch it is given in the intentional acts. Knowledge of essences would only be possible by "bracketing" all assumptions about the existence of an external world and the inessential (subjective) aspects of how the object is concretely given to us. This procedure Husserl called epoché.

Husserl in a later period concentrated more on the ideal, essential structures of consciousness. As he wanted to exclude any hypothesis on the existence of external objects, he introduced the method of phenomenological reduction to eliminate them. What was left over was the pure transcendental ego, as opposed to the concrete empirical ego. Now (transcendental) phenomenology is the study of the essential structures that are left in pure consciousness: this amounts in practice to the study of the noemata and the relations among them. The philosopher Theodor Adorno criticised Husserl's concept of phenomenological epistemology in his metacritique Against Epistemology, which is anti-foundationalist in its stance.

Transcendental phenomenologists include Oskar Becker, Aron Gurwitsch, and Alfred Schutz.

Realist phenomenology

After Husserl's publication of the Ideen in 1913, many phenomenologists took a critical stance towards his new theories. Especially the members of the Munich group distanced themselves from his new transcendental phenomenology and preferred the earlier realist phenomenology of the first edition of the Logical Investigations.

Realist phenomenologists include Adolf Reinach, Alexander Pfänder, Johannes Daubert, Max Scheler, Roman Ingarden, Nicolai Hartmann, and Hans Köchler.

Existential phenomenology

Existential phenomenology differs from transcendental phenomenology by its rejection of the transcendental ego. Merleau-Ponty objects to the ego's transcendence of the world, which for Husserl leaves the world spread out and completely transparent before the conscious. Heidegger thinks of a conscious being as always already in the world. Transcendence is maintained in existential phenomenology to the extent that the method of phenomenology must take a presuppositionless starting point - transcending claims about the world arising from, for example, natural or scientific attitudes or theories of the ontological nature of the world.

While Husserl thought of philosophy as a scientific discipline that had to be founded on a phenomenology understood as epistemology, Heidegger held a radically different view. Heidegger himself states their differences this way:

For Husserl, the phenomenological reduction is the method of leading phenomenological vision from the natural attitude of the human being whose life is involved in the world of things and persons back to the transcendental life of consciousness and its noetic-noematic experiences, in which objects are constituted as correlates of consciousness. For us, phenomenological reduction means leading phenomenological vision back from the apprehension of a being, whatever may be the character of that apprehension, to the understanding of the Being of this being (projecting upon the way it is unconcealed). According to Heidegger, philosophy was not at all a scientific discipline, but more fundamental than science itself. According to him science is only one way of knowing the world with no special access to truth. Furthermore, the scientific mindset itself is built on a much more "primordial" foundation of practical, everyday knowledge. Husserl was skeptical of this approach, which he regarded as quasi-mystical, and it contributed to the divergence in their thinking.

Instead of taking phenomenology as prima philosophia or a foundational discipline, Heidegger took it as a metaphysical ontology: "being is the proper and sole theme of philosophy... this means that philosophy is not a science of beings but of being.".Yet to confuse phenomenology and ontology is an obvious error. Phenomena are not the foundation or Ground of Being. Neither are they appearances, for as Heidegger argues in Being and Time, an appearance is "that which shows itself in something else," while a phenomenon is "that which shows itself in itself."

While for Husserl, in the epochè, being appeared only as a correlate of consciousness, for Heidegger being is the starting point. While for Husserl we would have to abstract from all concrete determinations of our empirical ego, to be able to turn to the field of pure consciousness, Heidegger claims that "the possibilities and destinies of philosophy are bound up with man's existence, and thus with temporality and with historicality."

However, ontological being and existential being are different categories, so Heidegger's conflation of these categories is, according to Husserl's view, the root of Heidegger's error. Husserl charged Heidegger with raising the question of ontology but failing to answer it, instead switching the topic to the Dasein, the only being for whom Being is an issue. That is neither ontology nor phenomenology, according to Husserl, but merely abstract anthropology. To clarify, perhaps, by abstract anthropology, as a non-existentialist searching for essences, Husserl rejected the existentialism implicit in Heidegger's distinction between being (sein) as things in reality and Being (Da-sein) as the encounter with being, as when being becomes present to us, that is, is unconcealed.

Existential phenomenologists include: Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), Emmanuel Levinas (1906 – 1995), Gabriel Marcel (1889 – 1973), Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), Paul Ricoeur (1913 - 2005) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908 – 1961).

Phenomenology and Eastern thought

Some researchers in phenomenology (particularly in reference to Heidegger's legacy) see possibilities of establishing dialogues with traditions of thought outside of the so-called Western philosophy, particularly with respect to East-Asian thinking, and despite perceived differences between "Eastern" and "Western". Furthermore, it has been claimed that a number of elements within phenomenology (mainly Heidegger's thought) have some resonance with Eastern philosophical ideas, particularly with Zen Buddhism and Taoism. According to Tomonubu Imamichi, the concept of Dasein was inspired — although Heidegger remains silent on this — by Okakura Kakuzo's concept of das-in-dem-Welt-sein (being in the world) expressed in The Book of Tea to describe Zhuangzi's philosophy, which Imamichi's teacher had offered to Heidegger in 1919, after having studied with him the year before.

There are also recent signs of the reception of phenomenology (and Heidegger's thought in particular) within scholarly circles focused on studying the impetus of metaphysics in the history of ideas in Islam and Early Islamic philosophy; perhaps under the indirect influence of the tradition of the French Orientalist and philosopher Henri Corbin.

In addition, the work of James L. Ruddy in the field of comparative philosophy, combined the concept of Transcendental Ego in Husserl's phenomenology with the concept of the primacy of self-consciousness in the work of Sankaracharya. In the course of this work, Ruddy uncovered a wholly new eidetic pheomenological science which he called "convergent phenomenology." This new phenomenology takes over where Husserl left off, and deals with the constitution of relation-like, rather than merely thing-like, or "intentional" objectivity.

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