Introduction to Phenomenology HTML version

(Erhellung), enlightenment (Aufklärung), even as conceptual analysis (Begriffsana-
lyse), whatever assists in elucidating the meaning of the phenomenon in question
without resorting to purely causal or ‘genetic’ explanation (Erklären). Due to its con-
cern to treat the phenomenon concretely in all its fullness, phenomenology stands
opposed to naturalism, scientism and reductionism, and to all forms of explanation
that draw attention away from the manner of the appearance of the phenomena in
question. Or, as the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961)
put it, phenomenology seeks to restore the richness of the world as experienced; it
wants to be present at the birth of the world for us.
It is important to grasp the difference between the phenomenological approach and
other kinds of scientific approach, for example, the psychological, physiological or
causal-explanatory approaches prevalent in the natural sciences. Husserl insisted on
this point, but it still gives rise to endless confusion. First of all, Husserl is emphatically
not challenging the importance, necessity or validity of explanatory scientific
accounts. Investigations into the physical and chemical nature of the brain and its
processing are a necessary part of science. But that is not the function of a
phenomenological description, which is a mode of approach that can be used in all
areas of science, but which specifically focuses on the manner objects are constituted
in and for subjects. It focuses on the structure and qualities of objects and situations
as they are experienced by the subject. What Husserl calls the paradox or mystery of
subjectivity – as the site of appearance of objectivity – is its theme.
Phenomenology aims to describe in all its complexity the manifold layers of the
experience of objectivity as it emerges at the heart of subjectivity. It is critical of all
forms of objectivism that attend only to what appears and not to the relation of the
appearing to the subject. Put in another and perhaps less satisfactory way, phenom-
enology describes, in its own terms, the essential and irreducible nature of the
experience of consciousness in the world – less satisfactory, because the appeal to
consciousness can hardly avoid invoking the spectre of Cartesianism, with its ghostly
isolated subject and its problematic dualism (and for this reason Heidegger tended to
avoid the term ‘consciousness’ altogether). In fact, however, in their attempt to do
justice to the essential and irreducible relations between human comportment and the
world, phenomenologists seek to overcome the traditional dichotomies of modern
philosophy, especially the subject–object distinction of traditional epistemology, with
its attendant account of knowledge as a representation of the object immanent in the
Husserl insisted that phenomenology as the fundamental science of all sciences had
to be presuppositionlessness, i.e. its descriptions had to avoid the presumptions both
of the modern philosophical and the scientific traditions. Of course, this claim to a
presuppositionless starting-point is itself highly problematic and soon came under
scrutiny within the phenomenological movement. Given the historically rooted nature
of human knowledge, the total absence of all presupposition would be impossible in a
science, and thus what is aimed at is, at best, as Gadamer has suggested, freedom
from undisclosed prejudices. In fact, the manner in which phenomenological
description had to come to terms with the recognition that some presuppositions are
necessary for any form of understanding led to the fusion of phenomenology with the
older discipline of hermeneutics, the art or practice of interpretation, beginning with
Heidegger, who, as we shall discuss below, drew on the hermeneutical tradition of
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) and Wilhelm