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A Prelude to Being & Time
What is Phenomenology?

2,992 words

Spanish translation here [1]

Edmund Husserl, 1859–1938 [2]

Edmund Husserl, 1859–1938

Author’s Note:

Long, long ago, when I was still in graduate school, I had the daft idea of teaching Heidegger in an adult education class. It actually went quite well. I would usually prepare a detailed outline, follow it for a page, then start speaking extemporaneously. This is a student transcript of my background lecture on Being and Time. It has been only lightly edited. I added a citation and eliminated a few repetitions. If a tape comes to light, I will put it online. 

In Being and Time Heidegger transforms the central question of metaphysics—the so-called “ontological” question “What is Being?”—by applying Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method. So, to understand the project of Being and Time, we should answer two questions: “What is phenomenology?” and “What is ontology?”

Husserl & the Phenomenological Movement

The term “phenomenology” was first coined in eighteenth-century Germany. Johann Heinrich Lambert, a philosopher of the Wolffian school, used “phenomenology” in his 1764 work Neues Organon to refer to the theory of appearances. There is a section on phenomenology in Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), and Hegel’s magnum opus is the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). But when someone refers to the “phenomenological movement” in philosophy, he is referring to the movement founded by Edmund Husserl.


You can buy Greg Johnson’s Graduate School with Heidegger here [4]

Husserl was born in 1859 in Moravia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now part of the Czech Republic. Trained as a mathematician in Vienna, Husserl became interested in philosophy through the work of Franz Brentano—the same Franz Brentano whose book On the Manifold Senses of Being in Aristotle set Heidegger on his path to philosophy.

Husserl’s first book, the Philosophy of Arithmetic, is an attempt to ground the concept of number in the counting activities of the human knower. Husserl’s second book, Logical Investigations, was published in three massive volumes in 1900 and 1901. The Logical Investigations were immensely influential—on Heidegger and on German philosophy as a whole—and through them Husserl secured his first university appointment at Göttingen in 1901.

Other Husserl works are the three-volume Ideas as well as Formal and Transcendental Logic, Cartesian Meditations, The Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, and The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.

In 1916, Husserl moved to the University of Freiburg, where Heidegger became his assistant. He retired in 1929 and lived a quiet life until his death in 1938 at the age of seventy-nine.

It was an outwardly uneventful life. Husserl was a kind and decent but uncharismatic man. Born a Jew, Husserl was a convert to Protestantism and a political conservative. Yet beneath his staid exterior was a vital and creative intellect focused with extraordinary intensity on what Husserl considered to be an infinite task of philosophical reflection.


You can buy Greg Johnson’s From Plato to Postmodernism here [6]

Upon his death, Husserl left 45,000 pages of notes, comprising not only his lectures and book manuscripts, but also thousands upon thousands of pages of private philosophical reflections in which he constantly worked and reworked his ideas. These writings are probably the best documentation we have of the life of rigorous philosophical speculation carried out for decades with the highest sense of mission, simply as an end in itself. Husserl’s writings are dense and difficult, rigorous and austere. His examples are drawn from the life of a scholar. His inkwell, for instance, is prominently featured in many of his writings as an object of intense reflection. Husserl was, in short, a consummate egghead. But this egghead launched a philosophical revolution. 

The Phenomenological Revolution

The guiding slogan of phenomenology is “To the things themselves.” Husserl called this slogan “the principle of principles.” For Husserl, the things themselves are not, however, the Kantian “thing in itself” that lies beyond the realm of experience. Husserl’s principle means that the only authority for phenomenological philosophy is direct and immediate experience or intuition. Phenomenology takes what is given, simply as it is given, and tries to describe it carefully in its own terms.

Phenomenology is resolutely opposed to any form of reductionism. Reductionism is the view that one kind of thing is “nothing but” another kind of thing.

The reductionist method is to take two realms of experience—say matter and life—and declare that there is no ultimate difference between them. Life is “nothing but” matter, which means that the fact that living things appear to be different from inert matter is just an illusion; it is just “mere” appearance.


You can buy Jef Costello’s Heidegger in Chicago here [8]

Phenomenology rejects on principle the attempt to claim that what appears to be different really isn’t; it rejects the attempt to elevate some realms of experience to true reality and demote other realms to mere appearance. Phenomenology takes appearances seriously; it takes them at face value and simply describes how they are given. If living things appear to be different than inert matter, then that is good enough for phenomenology. The phenomenologist then tries to articulate the precise manner in which life appears to be different, and leaves it at that.

So, the phenomenological method is the attempt to carefully describe and catalog the different ways in which things appear. Phenomenology describes how things show up or show themselves to us. But, as stated, this is ambiguous. When we talk about how something appears, we can refer either to the content of its appearance or the form of its appearance.

If, for instance, we describe how a glass appears, we can describe its shape, its size, and its color. This is a description of the content of its appearance. Or, we can describe how a glass appears by noting the fact that it is a three-dimensional object, and because it is a three-dimensional object we always see only one side of it at a time.

A three-dimensional spatial object is not present all at once; all of its sides and aspects are not given at the same time. Rather, some sides and aspects—those that face us—are given to us directly, while the others sides and aspects, that face away from us, are not directly given; rather, we apprehend them as absent aspects that could be made present simply by turning the glass around to face us, thereby making the absent side present—but at the cost of making the present side absent.

This kind of description of how a glass shows up to us deals with the form of its appearance, not its particular content. The description abstracts out any consideration of the particular qualities of the glass and treats it simply as a three-dimensional object, then seeks to describe how it is given to us. And the description of the form of the appearance of the glass applies just as well to all other three-dimensional objects.


You can buy Collin Cleary’sWhat is a Rune?, featuring extensive discussions of Heidegger, here [10]

All three-dimensional objects have pretty much the same form of appearance, a form of appearance that differs from the forms of appearance of psychic states and of mathematical and cultural objects. Living things appear to us as having purposes and values, and their motions show up as actions in light of these concepts; dead material things appear differently.

Phenomenology leaves the description of the contents of the different realms of appearance to specialized sciences and sub-disciplines. The specialized sciences and disciplines divide the entire world up between them, and each sets busily to work describing and explaining the contents of its particular domain.

Because the entire world is divided up between these various disciplines, there would seem to be no phenomena left for phenomenology to study. However, because these specialized disciplines are so focused upon describing the contents of what appears in their specific domains, they overlook the forms of their appearance. The special sciences are so concerned with what appears that they give no thought to how it appears. They are so concerned with looking at what appears that they look through how it appears and thus overlook how it appears. Each specialized science has, therefore, a particular blind spot that is necessitated by the fact that one cannot be concerned with the form of appearances and the content of appearances at the same time. One’s attention cannot be in two places at once.

Husserl’s infinite phenomenological task was to describe and catalog all the different structures of appearance. To get a sense of how vast this project was and how picayune it could get, one of Husserl’s students at Göttingen spent an entire semester working out a careful phenomenological description of a mailbox. Husserl’s own work, however, was on considerably more important topics in logic, mathematics, the theory of knowledge, the philosophy of nature and values, and the philosophy of time. 

Presence & Absence in Husserl’s Phenomenology

Although different kinds of beings have their appropriate ways of showing up, Husserl noticed a number of basic patterns shared by all forms of appearance. The most important of these patterns is what I shall call, following Robert Sokolowski, the interplay of presence and absence.[1] [11] All objects of consciousness are given to us through an interplay of presence and absence. In Husserl’s language, empty intentions refer to our awareness of absent objects, while filled intentions refer to our awareness of present objects. For Husserl, consciousness is always an interplay of empty and filled intentions.

It is natural to understand consciousness in terms of presence. But how does absence come into it? Your awareness of this lecture seems to be constituted out of various presences: our presence in the same room, the audible presence of my voice, and so forth. But presence is not what is essential to consciousness. Water may be present in a glass, but neither the glass nor the water is conscious of the other.

The wonder of consciousness is the ability to establish and maintain cognitive relationships with absent objects. If I pour water out of a glass, the relationship of presence between the two vanishes. But when this lecture is over, you can still talk about it, think about it, praise it, crack jokes about it, etc., even in its absence. The miracle of consciousness is our ability to talk behind one another’s backs.

It is possible for us to be conscious of absent objects through the faculties of memory and imagination. We retain experiences in memory. In light of them, we can anticipate possible or even impossible experiences through imagination. Both of these powers are facilitated by, though not reducible to, language.

For Husserl, empty intentions have priority, in the sense that they are always there before they are fulfilled or not fulfilled by present objects. Thus cognition, for Husserl, always has an element of re-cognition, i.e., the experience of present objects as intended in their absence through language, memory, and imagination.

The claim that beings become present through presence and absence can, therefore, be understood as the claim that consciousness is most properly understood as an interplay between, on the one hand, the sensuous presence of the objects around us and, on the other hand, the faculties of memory, imagination, and speech that allow us to deal with beings in their absence. 

How Phenomenology Might Save the World

At this point, one ought to be wondering just why phenomenology was viewed as such an earthshaking philosophical development. Hans-Georg Gadamer recounts an amusing story in his memoir Philosophical Apprenticeships:

I still recall how I heard the term [phenomenology] for the first time in 1919. It was in Richard Hamann’s introductory art history seminar, where a kind of club came together for an exchange of views. Helmut von der Steinen led this memorable conversation in which the number of proposals for the renewal of the world was exactly equal to the number of participants. There was even a Marxist. . . . One person expected a renewal of Germany from Stefan George, another expected as much from Rabindranath Tagore, a third conjured up the giant figure of Max Weber, and a fourth recommended Otto von Gierke’s theory of communal law. . . . Finally, someone declared with decisive conviction that the only thing that could save us was phenomenology. I accepted this devoutly and completely without even a shred of evidence to back it up.[2] [12]

Phenomenology was remarkably popular for several reasons, all having to do with the fact that it stands as a corrective to the pervasive scientific reductionism of the time. Scientific reductionism has two dimensions.

First, there is the position known as scientific realism, which is the claim that the ordinary way people see the world is false and the way science sees the world is true. For instance, we experience a table as a solid object, whereas the physicist knows that the table is “really” nothing but a cloud of atoms and subatomic particles. It is more empty space than extended matter, and our perception of the table as solid is simply a naïve and mistaken theory.

We experience the table as colored, whereas from the physicist’s perspective the table has no colors in itself and the color we perceive is a product of the interaction of our sense organs and the light reflected off the table—and the physicist’s perspective is “true” and ours is “false.” The table has no color in itself; it just has “reflectance properties” and our experience to the contrary is simply naïve.

Human beings experience space and time as elastic, depending upon their purposes and activities and their physical size and perspective. The trip home is always shorter than the trip away from home, even though one’s watch and one’s odometer register the same time and distance. The flight of stairs is longer at the end of the day than the beginning—but becomes quite short when one gets off work—even though the number of steps does not change. From a human point of view, buildings alter qualitatively as they grow in size, so that so many square feet of enclosed space alter when they are piled up together with ten thousand other identical units.

Scientific realism devaluates these kinds of experiences as mere illusions because they do not show up on objective scales of measurement. We should not feel any different if the same living space is on the ground floor of a house or small apartment building or on the top floor of a high-rise together with a thousand other identical units.

The result of scientific realism is the devaluation of the specifically human way of experiencing space and time, solids and spaces, colors and textures and their replacement with a so-called “objective” view of things that defines its objectivity precisely by the extent to which it abstracts away from the human way of experiencing the world. A world driven by scientific realism is a world in which human beings construct artifacts—and especially buildings and cities—that no longer bear any relation to the human way of experiencing the world. It is a world in which human beings feel dwarfed by and alienated from their own creations.

Husserl’s phenomenology rejects scientific realism and treats the human way of experiencing the world as having its own dignity and integrity, which must be taken into account. In his last work, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Husserl even argues that the world of lived human experience—which Husserl calls the “lifeworld”—has primacy over the world as it is modeled by science, and that science must ultimately tie its abstractions back to the lifeworld if they are to have meaning. A clear implication of this view is that technology must also tie itself back to the world of lived experience if it too is to be meaningful.

A second element of scientific reductionism is the reduction of human existence as such to non-human or sub-human phenomena. This kind of reductionism has many forms. Human behavior and experience have been reduced to the mere manifestations of hidden psychological, technological, economic, political, social, cultural, biological, and racial causes.

In each case, these forms of reductionism deny our experiences of such specifically human features as rationality, creativity, freedom, and responsibility—our ability to discover how the world works, to bring new things into the world, and to take responsibility for them. Phenomenology cuts this kind of reductionism off at the root, simply by delegitimzing the denial of the truth of our experiences of freedom and responsibility, rationality and creativity.

By undercutting scientific realism and reductionism, phenomenology undercuts some of the most militant and destructive ideologies of our time, such as Marxism and the cult of technological Titanism and unlimited progress—all of which depend upon forms of scientific reductionism and realism.

Another reason for phenomenology’s importance is specifically philosophical. Reductionism is not just a staple of bad science and bad ideologies. It is also a feature of bad metaphysics. For instance:

All of these positions use the same reductionist technique of taking one realm of experience, treating it as privileged, and treating all others as merely illusory projections or decayed versions of the privileged realm. So phenomenology has radical implications for the critique and refashioning of metaphysics.

This brings us to Heidegger.

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* [15]  Part one of the second lecture of an adult education class on “Heidegger, Metaphysics, & Nihilism” given in Atlanta in the mid-1990s.

[1] [16] See Robert Sokolowski, Husserlian Meditations: How Words Present Things (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974) and Presence & Absence: A Philosophical Study of Language & Being (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).

[2] [17] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Apprenticeships, trans. Robert R. Sullivan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), pp. 14–15.