Introduction to Phenomenology HTML version

Dermot Moran
Phenomenology as a way of seeing and as a movement
Phenomenology may be characterised initially in a broad sense as the unprejudiced,
descriptive study of whatever appears to consciousness, precisely in the manner in
which it so appears. Phenomenology as thus understood emerged as an original
philosophical approach at the end of the nineteenth century in the school of Franz
Brentano, and was developed by Edmund Husserl and his successors to become a
major tradition of philosophising throughout the world during the twentieth century. At
the dawn of the twenty-first century, it continues to offer a vibrant and challenging
alternative to contemporary naturalistic accounts of consciousness and meaning.
Phenomenology is usually characterised as a way of seeing rather than a set of
doctrines. In a typical formulation, the founder of phenomenology Edmund Husserl
(1859–1938), in his late work Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental
Phenomenology (1936 – hereafter Crisis), presents phenomenology as approaching
‘whatever appears as such’, including everything meant or thought, in the manner of
its appearing, in the ‘how’ (Wie) of its manifestation.1 Similarly, Husserl’s colleague
and prot←g← Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) could proclaim in his methodological
discussion of phenomenology at the beginning of his Being and Time (1927), section
7: “The expression ‘phenomenology’ signifies primarily a methodological conception.
This expression does not characterize the what of the objects of philosophical
research as subject-matter, but rather the how of that research” (SZ § 7, 27; 50).2 This
approach involves the practice of taking a fresh unprejudiced look – i.e. untainted by
scientific, metaphysical, religious or cultural presuppositions or attitudes – at the
fundamental and essential features of human experience in and of the world.
According to Husserl’s own slogan, phenomenology aimed to return to ‘the things
themselves’, avoiding constructivist system-building so prevalent in traditional phil-
osophy, or reasoning on the basis of some preconceived and uninterrogated starting-
point (as traditional rationalisms and empiricisms were wont to do). Instead,
fundamental philosophical issues are examined through attention to the manner in
which things and meanings show themselves, come to self-evidence, or come to be
‘constituted’ for us, as Husserl put it, invoking a concept from the Kantian tradition.
The phenomenological approach is primarily descriptive, seeking to illuminate issues
in a radical, unprejudiced manner, paying close attention to the evidence that
presents itself to our grasp or intuition. Husserl frequently speaks of phenomeno-
logical description (Beschreibung, Deskription) as clarification (Klärung), illumination