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Philosophical phenomenology

Psychological phenomenology

Phenomenology and contemporary psychology


The word “phenomenology” is derived from the Greek phainein, “to show,” from which came phainemenon, meaning “that which appears.” Thus, phenomenology in a general sense could be literally the orderly study of phenomena, or appearances, and could as such encompass much of traditional philosophy and science. In its restricted sense, however, it refers to the study of phenomena as phenomena and more specifically to a twentieth-century movement in German philosophy centered loosely on Edmund Husserl. A good English introduction to Husserl’s philosophy has been provided by Marvin Farber (1943), and the whole phenomenological movement has been reviewed by Herbert Spiegelberg (1960). The various forms of existentialism, which have developed particularly in France since World War ii, may be regarded as offshoots of the phenomenological movement but should not be identified with it. Phenomenology and existentialism, while primarily philosophical, have had important repercussions in psychology, psychiatry, theology, literature, drama, and the fine arts. The present article will limit itself to a brief sketch of the philosophical background and a somewhat fuller account of psychological phenomenology [seePsychology, article onexistential psychology, and the biography ofHusserl].

Philosophical phenomenology

Philosophical phenomenology is essentially a method of philosophical analysis rather than a school in the traditional sense of the term. The phenomenologist attempts to suspend or “place in brackets” (einklammern) all metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions, to identify and describe the essences of experience as they are intuitively apprehended (Anschauung, Wesensschau), and on this basis to provide a fresh approach to the classic problems of metaphysics, epistemology, psychology, logic, ethics, and aesthetics. Husserl believed that in this way philosophy could be rescued from unproductive speculation and re-established as a rigorously empirical discipline (strenge Wissenschaft). Phenomenology is thus empirical in its insistence on a continuous and unbiased scrutiny of experience, but not empiricist as the word is commonly used to refer to explanation through past experience. It shares the empirical emphasis of Locke and his successors and of some of the positivists—e.g., Ernst Mach—differing from these primarily on grounds that their analyses of experience were neither rigorous nor complete. Phenomenology is not to be confused with phenomenalism, the doctrine that knowledge is limited to the data of experience and that the knower is consequently incapable of transcending the world of phenomena, nor with psychologism, the contention that all philosophical problems can be reduced to terms of psychology.

History of modern phenomenology

Antecedents of modern phenomenology are to be found in the many classic attempts—e.g., that of St. Augustine—to found a philosophy on the data of intuition. The modern movement begins, however, with Descartes, whose “method” involved the suspension of all beliefs and the acceptance as true of only those ideas which are presented “so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.” Although Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal world rests in part on phenomenological analysis, the post-Kantian (e.g., Hegelian) use of the term “phenomenology” and its loose use in the sciences to denote anything observable are not regarded as relevant. Husserl’s phenomenology goes back to Descartes for its inspiration and draws liberally from the psychological analyses of William James (1890) and Husserl’s teacher Franz Brentano (1874), particularly from the latter’s doctrine of intentionality. Husserl’s early interest was in the phenomenological basis of mathematics and logic, from which he moved to epistemology and eventually to a transcendental phenomenology, which is usually regarded as a form of metaphysical idealism. Among his publications the most important for psychology is his Logische Untersuchungen (1900–1901). The Jahrbuch für Phälosophie und phanomenologische Forschung, which he edited from 1913 to 1930, also contains contributions to psychology, and the Husserl archives at Louvain are yielding further material of psychological interest. His more strictly philosophical works, however, have had a profound influence on the existentialist psychologies [see the biographies ofames; Kant].

Other influential German philosophers who shared in the phenomenological movement were Alexander Pfänder, Max Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, and Moritz Geiger. Scheler in particular, although not a disciple of Husserl, became widely known for his extension of the phenomenological method into the fields of ethics and value theory. It was Martin Heidegger, however, Husser’s pupil and successor at the University of Freiburg, who perhaps unintentionally popularized the term “existentialism” and who, through his often baffling metaphors and neologisms, has been in some measure responsible for phenomenology’s reputation as an obscure and almost esoteric metaphysical system. Since the publication of Sein und Zeit (1927) Heidegger has moved steadily away from a straightforward phenomenology and has concerned himself more and more with the ontological problem–that of the fundamental meaning of being (Sein). In spite of his early enthusiasm for the National Socialist ideology he has been an influential figure in recent continental European philosophy, particularly in French existentialism and in the existentialist movements in theology and psychiatry. Since World War II the phenomenological movement in philosophy has been most active in France under the leadership of Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Both men have accepted in principle Husserl’s phenomenological method but have pushed further in the direction of a detailed examination of the phenomena of human existence (the human situation) and thus toward a complete existentialist philosophy. Sartre’s more strictly phenomenological contributions are to be found in his studies of imagination and emotion; in his novels and plays and in his more systematic philosophical works, e.g., Being and Nothingness (1943), he presents existentialism as a philosophy of life. Merleau-Ponty is also known both as a phenomenologist and as an existentialist. His most important phenomenological contributions have been his analyses of perception (1945) and of language (1952).

Psychological phenomenology

Psychological phenomenology, too, is essentially an approach rather than a particular kind of theory or system, and it owes as much to Goethe, Purkinje, and the physiologist Ewald Hering as it does to Husserl. Whereas Husserl’s phenomenology is logically prior to all empirical science, concerned with essences rather than with “matters of fact,” psychological phenomenology is frankly and explicitly descriptive. It represents what David Katz called an attitude of “disciplined naivete,” the attempt to suspend all presuppositions (biases, implicit assumptions) and observe and describe the world of phenomena (consciousness, immediate experience, phenomenal world, psychological field) as it is naively apprehended. Husserl regarded this kind of psychology as an important empirical discipline, coordinate with the other empirical sciences but not to be confused with “pure” phenomenology. Psychological phenomenology is in the tradition of all the psychologies since Descartes which have accepted as their task the scientific study of consciousness, and it is thus to be distinguished from the faculty psychologies, the depth psychologies, and the psychologies which limit their subject matter to externally observed or logically inferred behavior.

Phenomenology and introspection

Phenomenological description must not be equated, however, with the introspective analysis of the Wundtian school, best represented in the English literature by Edward B. Titchener. For Titchener (1929), “existential” experience consists of the pure, irreducible, conscious content (sensation, feeling, image) which is left after all object reference or meaning context has been deliberately brushed aside. To confuse the sensation itself with the stimulus which arouses it—e.g., the color with the light wave—is to commit the stimulus error. The phenomenologist would accept introspective analysis as a legitimate technique for the establishment of correlations between the variables of physical stimulation and the dimensions of consciousness, as in psychophysics, but he would reject the assertion that the introspectively identified sensations are necessarily the elements of consciousness. He would also agree with the introspectionist that the physical, physiological, or other conditions which give rise to a phenomenon, or which can be correlated with it, should not be confused with the phenomenon itself. Just as color is not an array of light waves, so the person we perceive is not the person who may “really” exist; one is a phenomenal datum, the other an independently definable process, entity, or condition which may or may not be causally related to the phenomenon. The phenomenologist differs radically from the introspectionist in his insistence on the acceptance as legitimate psychological data of the very phenomena which the introspectionist emphatically rejects, namely, such phenomena as organization, directedness, attractiveness, or requiredness—phenomena which for the introspectionist are secondary outcomes of association or interpretation. If we suspend our presuppositions, the phenomenologist argues, and refuse to impose on the phenomena any theory as to their origin or their veridicality, we still find ourselves confronted with a meaningful world of things, events, and people, organized and interrelated in vastly complex ways.

Elimination of biases and presuppositions

Our first phenomenological task is to observe, describe, and analyze the structures, properties, dimensions, and interrelations of phenomena as they are naively apprehended. This, the phenomenologist contends, is a highly disciplined activity, fully as rigorous as introspection, analogous to but not identical with the phenomenological reduction of Husserl [see the biographies ofTitchener; Wundt].

The various biases or presuppositions which must be placed in brackets have been variously classified and need not be detailed here. Some of these stem from the reductive atomism of classical Newtonian physics and can be recognized as implicit in the associationist psychologies developed since the work of John Locke; others stem from the Darwinian emphasis on explanation by reference to origins, evident both in behaviorist learning theory and in Freudian psychoanalysis; and still others reflect the confusion of logical implication with psychological content so frequently encountered in theories of motivation. Without denying the value of reductive analysis or of developmental studies, the phenomenological psychologist would argue that these and other biases involve a prejudgment of the phenomena and the consequent risk that significant phenomena, such as the melodic property of a series of tones or the physiognomic properties of a face, will be dismissed as of no consequence because they disappear in reductive analysis or seem to be the products of past experience. He would argue further that in the recent history of psychology this deliberate bracketing of implicit assumptions and the acceptance of all data of experience, however subtle or evanescent, as intrinsically valid, has led to significant extensions of psychological knowledge and advances in psychological theory.

Phenomenology and contemporary psychology

The phenomenological method has been applied to many areas of psychology, most systematically perhaps in the experimental study of perception, particularly in connection with the traditional problems of space, time, motion, color, sound, and touch. These are obviously the phenomena most readily accessible to observation under conditions of experimental control. The phenomenal world contains much more, however, than things and events with their properties and interrelationships. It also contains the phenomenal self and phenomenal “other selves/’ with their feelings, emotions, and desires; and it contains a whole welter of phenomenal structures, states, and processes which have been traditionally classified as memories, fantasies, choices, beliefs, and the like. These phenomena also invite the interest of the phenomenologist, and even though they are difficult to bring into the laboratory, they are steadily yielding to other techniques of investigation. Some of the most promising of these techniques are being developed by the clinician, whose patient may be incapable of giving a full and free account of his experience and must consequently be induced through indirect devices to reveal what is there for him. The range of phenomenological investigation is thus steadily broadening to include what have been traditionally thought of as noncognitive processes. As facts are being accumulated and techniques refined, more and more attention is being devoted to the reconstruction of the phenomenal world of the “other person,” including that of the child, the deviant, the person who has grown up in a culture radically different from one’s own, even members of other species. Basic to the investigation is always the attempt to establish the “what” of experience. To explain the “why” one must transcend phenomenology and become a systematic psychologist or even a philosopher. Most of the phenomenologists have gone beyond their phenomenology, but phenomenology has produced no single psychological theory. In the available space only a few of the most significant contributors to psychological phenomenology can be mentioned.

Experimental psychology of perception

The pioneer in the experimental phenomenology of perception is undoubtedly David Katz, whose The World of Colour appeared in 1911. Before him, Goethe (1810) and Purkinje (1819–1825) had published detailed descriptive analyses of the world of color, and Hering in Outlines of a Theory of the Light Sense (1872–1875) had countered Helmholtz’ empiricist theory of color constancy with a nativist theory based on the acceptance of naively apprehended object color as psychologically valid. Karl Stumpf in his Tonpsychologie (1883–1890) had also made use of the phenomenological method, but Stumpf–s interest in phenomenology was as much philosophical as it was psychological. Helmholtz had explained the approximate constancy of object color as the interpretation of primary, physically bound sensation elements by unconscious inference. Katz bracketed Helmholtz’ physicalistic assumptions and proceeded to explore the world of color in all its modes of appearance (Erscheinungsweisen), demonstrating that while film colors (Flächenfarben) vary simply and directly with changes in retinal stimulation, the same does not hold true for surface colors (Oberfächenfarben), which are phenomenally inherent in the perceived object. Impressions of surface color and of illumination are phenomenally covariant, changes in total retinal stimulation being registered, within very wide limits, as changes in impression of illumination, with the consequence that object color tends to remain phenomenally constant. As a result of Katz’s phenomenological studies of color and of his similar studies of the world of touch in Der Aufbau der Tastwelt (1925), the facts of phenomenal constancy have become basic to a reconstructed psychophysics and psychophysiology of perception. [SeePerception, article onPerceptual Constancy; Vision, article onColor Vision and Color Blindness; and the biographies OfHering; Katz; Stumpf.]

Gestalt theory. Perhaps even more rewarding has been the phenomenological approach to perceptual organization represented by the Berlin group of gestalt psychologists. The reality of gestalt qualities had been recognized by Christian von Erenfels in his article “Über ‘Gestaltqualätaten’” (1890) and by Stumpf, but it was Max Wertheimer’s experimental studies of apparent movement (1912) which set the stage for the gestalt movement. The older theories could not admit as psychologically valid an experience of movement when there is no physical movement in the stimuli; phenomenal movement had to be explained away as an illusion. Wertheimer, like Katz, simply accepted the phenomenal fact as valid, insisting that movement as such must have its direct neural correlate; hence the controversial principle of isomorphism. Wertheimer’s pioneer experiments led to a long series of studies of gestalt phenomena in perception, memory, thinking, and motivation, many of which have been reviewed by Koffka (1935). While the gestalt theories which emerged, notably the physiological and the psychological field theories, go beyond phenomenology, the basic approach is in each case phenomenological. It should be noted that this approach, although prominently associated with the gestalt group, has been broadly characteristic of experimental psychology in western Europe. Examples of this approach are to be found in the work of Albert Michotte on phenomenal causality, Jean Piaget on developmental psychology, F. J. J. Buytendijk on expressive movement, and Geza Révész and Albert Wellek on the psychology of music. [SeeGestalt theory.]

Verstehende psychologic

Related to the experimental movement but not to be identified with it is the “understanding” psychology (verstehende Psychologie) of Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Scheler, Eduard Spranger, Karl Jaspers, and Ludwig Binswanger. Distinguishing broadly between the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenschaften (mental or humanistic sciences), Dilthey (1883) placed in the former category the reductive or “explaining” psychology of the laboratory and in the latter the psychology which seeks an intuitive understanding of man’s value orientations as revealed both in individual life and in history. This kind of psychology, systematized by Spranger as a sixfold value typology in his Types of Men (1914), has had considerable influence on the study of personality, both in Germany and elsewhere. Although the verstehende Psychologie is not strictly phenomenological, it represents the attempt at an intuitive, nonanalytic penetration of the inner life of the other person; a somewhat shaky phenomenological basis for it is to be found in Scheler’s The Nature of Sympathy (1913). Scheler’s descriptive analysis of the various forms of sympathy is part of his attempt to lay the phenomenological groundwork for a broadly inclusive philosophical anthropology. The relevance of the verstehende Psychologie to psychopathology is perhaps best demonstrated in Jaspers’ General Psychopathology (1913) and Binswanger’s Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins (1942); both authors are to be ranked among the leading existentialists. [SeeSympathy and Empathy.]

The phenomenological movement is still distinctively European. In the United States, leading interpreters of philosophical phenomenology in the Husserl tradition are Marvin Farber and Herbert Spiegelberg. The phenomenological emphasis in experimental, developmental, and social psychology is recognizable in what has come to be known as “cognitive theory,” a useful summary and evaluation of which was made by Martin Scheerer (1954). In the psychology of personality and in psychotherapy there is a vigorous and growing existentialist movement, influenced greatly by Binswanger’s Daseinsanalyse.

Robert B. Macleod

[Directly related are the entriesPsychology, article onexistential psychology; Thinking. Other relevant material may be found inMental disorders, treatment of, article onclient-centered counseling; Perception; and in the biographies ofHusserl; Katz.]


Binswanger, Ludwig (1942) 1953 Grundformen und Erkenntnis menschlichen Daseins. Rev. ed. Zurich: Niehaus.

Brentano, Franz C. (1874) 1924–1925 Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt. 2 vols., 2d ed. Leipzig: Meiner.

Dilthey, Wilhelm (1883) 1951 Gesammelte Schriften. Volume 1: Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften. Leipzig: Teubner.

Ehrenfels, Christian Von 1890 Über “Gestaltqualitäten.” Vierteljahresschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie und Soziologie 14:249–292.

Farber, Marvin 1943 The Foundation of Phenomenology: Edmund Husserl and the Quest for a Rigorous Science of Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von (1810) 1840 Theory of Colours. London: Murray. → First published as Zur Farbenlehre.

Heidegger, Martin (1927) 1962 Being and Time. New York: Harper. → First published in German as Sein und Zeit.

Hering, Ewald (1872–1875) 1964 Outlines of a Theory of the Light Sense. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published in German as Zur Lehre vom Lichtsinne. A revised and enlarged edition was published in 1920 as Grundzüge der Lehre vom Lichtsinn.

Husserl, Edmund (1900–1901) 1922–1928 Logische Untersuchungen. 2 vols. Halle (Germany): Niemeyer. → Volume 1: Prolegomena zur reinen Logik. Volume 2: Untersuchungen zur Phänomenologie und Theorie der Erkenntnis.

James, William (1890) 1962 The Principles of Psychology. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

Jaspers, Karl (1913) 1963 General Psychopathology. Univ of Chicago Press. → First published in German.

Katz, David (1911) 1935 The World of Colour. London: Routledge. → First published in German as Die Erscheinungsweisen der Farben und ihre Beeinflussung durch die indiviuelle Erfahrung. A revised and enlarged edition was published in 1930 as Der Aufbau der Farbwelt.

Katz, David 1925 Der Aufbau der Tastwelt. Leipzig: Barth

Koffka, Kurt 1935 Principles of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Harcourt.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1945) 1962 Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Humanities. → First published in French.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice 1952 Sur la phénoménologie du langage. Pages 91–109 in Colloque International de phénoménologie, Bruxelles, 1951, Problémes actuels de la phénoménologie. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer.

Purkinje, Jan E. 1819–1825 Beobachtungen und Versuche zur Physiologie der Sinne. 2 vols. Prague: Calve; Berlin: Reimer. → Volume 1 was published in Prague and Volume 2 in Berlin.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1943) 1956 Being and Nothingness. New York: Philosophical Library. → First published in French as L’etre et le néant.

Scheerer, Martin 1954 Cognitive Theory. Volume 1, pages 91–142 in Gardner Lindzey (editor), Handbook of Social Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: AddisonWesley.

Scheler, Max (1913) 1954 The Nature of Sympathy. London: Routledge. → First published as Zur Phänomenologie und Theorie der Sympathiegefühle. The second revised and enlarged edition—which was later translated into English—was published in 1923 as Wesen und Formen der Sympathie.

Spiegelberg, Herbert (1960) 1965 The Phenomenological Movement. 2 vols. 2d ed. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Spranger, Eduard (1914) 1928 Types of Men: The Psychology and Ethics of Personality. 5th ed. Halle (Germany): Niemeyer. → First published as Lebensformen: Geisteswissenschaftliche Psychologie und Ethik der Personlichkeit.

Stumpf, Karl 1883–1890 Tonpsychologie. 2 vols. Leipzig: Hirzel.

Titchener, Edward B. 1929 Systematic Psychology: Prolegomena. New York: Macmillan.

Wertheimer, Max 1912 Experimentelle Studien über das Sehen von Bewegungen. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane 61:161–265. → Reprinted in Wertheimer’s Drei Abhandlungen zur Gestalttheorie published in 1925 by the Philosophische Akademie, Erlangen.

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Phenomenology is the study of experience, how things appear to us. The word comes from the Greek but was elaborated in the early nineteenth century on the basis of Immanuel Kant's conception of the world as phenomenon, the world of our experience (as opposed to the world as noumenon, the world as it is "in itself"). Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously employed the term in Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit ), suggesting that all knowledge was a matter of appearance with no world "in itself" other than the one we know. But phenomenology came of age with Edmund Husserl, who turned the Hegelian perspective into a rigorous philosophical method. Husserl in turn gave birth to a number of remarkable students, who together would set the tone for much of European philosophy in the twentieth century. Among them are Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Edmund Husserl

As a movement and a method, as a "first philosophy," phenomenology owes its life to Edmund Husserl (18591938), a German-Czech (Moravian) philosopher who started out as a mathematician in the late nineteenth century and wrote a book on the philosophy of mathematics, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891; The Philosophy of Arithmetic ). His view was that there was a strict empiricism, but on being shown (by the great German logician Gottlob Frege) that such an analysis could not possibly succeed, Husserl shifted his ground and started to defend the idea that the truths of arithmetic had a kind of necessity that could not be accounted for by empiricism. Thus, one of the main themes of his next book, Logische Untersuchungen (1913, 1921; The Logical Investigations ), was a protracted argument against "psychologism," the thesis that truth is dependent on the human mind. Rather, Husserl argues that necessary truths are not reducible to our psychology. Phenomenology was Husserl's continuing and continuously revised effort to develop a method for grounding necessary truth.

Given Husserl's beginnings in the rigorous field of mathematics, one must appreciate the temperament that he brought to his new discipline. By the end of the nineteenth century, a new perspectivism (or some would say a relativism) had come into philosophy. Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular, had argued that all knowledge is perspectival and that philosophy could not be reduced to a single perspective, that philosophy might be relative to a people, or to our particular species, or even to individual psychology. Husserl's contemporary Wilhelm Dilthey defended a milder but similar thesis, and the "sociology of knowledge" was just beginning its ascension. Against any such relativism, Husserl insisted on philosophy as a singular, rigorous science, and his phenomenology was to provide the key.

It is often debated whether phenomenology is a philosophy or a method, but it is both. As a "first philosophy," without presuppositions, it lays the basis for all further philosophical and scientific investigations. Husserl defines phenomenology as the scientific study of the essential structures of consciousness. By describing those structures, Husserl promises us, we can find certainty, which philosophy has always sought. To do that, Husserl describes a methodor rather, a series of continuously revised methodsfor taking up a peculiarly phenomenological standpoint, "bracketing out" everything that is not essential, thereby understanding the basic rules or constitutive processes through which consciousness does its work of knowing the world.

The central doctrine of Husserl's phenomenology is the thesis that consciousness is intentional, a doctrine that is borrowed from Franz Brentano. That is, every act of consciousness is directed at some object or other, perhaps a material object, perhaps an "ideal" objectas in mathematics. Thus, the phenomenologist can distinguish and describe the nature of the intentional acts of consciousness and the intentional objects of consciousness, which are defined through the content of consciousness. It is important to note that one can describe the content of consciousness and, accordingly, the object of consciousness without any particular commitment to the actuality or existence of that object. Thus, one can describe the content of a dream in much the same terms that one describes the view from a window or a scene from a novel.

In Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1931), Husserl distinguishes between the natural standpoint and the phenomenological standpoint. The former is our ordinary everyday viewpoint and the ordinary stance of the natural sciences, describing things and states-of-affairs. The latter is the special viewpoint achieved by the phenomenologist as he or she focuses not on things but on our consciousness of things. (This is sometimes confused by the fact that Husserl insists that the phenomenologist pay attention to "the things themselves," by which he means the phenomena, or our conscious ideas of things, not natural objects.) One arrives at the phenomenological standpoint by way of a series of phenomenological "reductions," which eliminate certain aspects of our experience from consideration. Husserl formulates several of these, and their nature shifts throughout his career, but two of them deserve special mention. The first and best-known is the epoché or "suspension" that he describes in Ideas, in which the phenomenologist "brackets" all questions of truth or reality and simply describes the contents of consciousness. (The word is borrowed from both the early Skeptics and René Descartes.) The second reduction (or set of reductions) eliminates the merely empirical content of consciousness and focuses instead on the essential features, the meanings of consciousness. Thus Husserl (like Kant) defends a notion of "intuition" that differs from and is more specialized than the ordinary notion of "experience." We have intuitions that are eidetic, meaning that we recognize meanings and necessary truths in them, and not merely the contingent things of the natural world.

In his early work, including Ideas, Husserl defends a strong realist positionthat is, the things that are perceived by consciousness are assumed to be not only objects of consciousness but also the things themselves. A decade or so later, Husserl made a shift in his emphasis from the intentionality of the objects to the nature of consciousness as such. His phenomenology became increasingly and self-consciously Cartesian, as his philosophy moved to the study of the ego and its essential structures. In 1931 Husserl was invited to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and on the basis of those lectures published his Cartesianische Meditationen (1938; Cartesian Meditations, 1960). (The Paris Lectures were also published some years later.) He argues there that "the monadically concrete ego includes the whole of actual and potential conscious life" and "the phenomenology of this self-constitution coincides with phenomenology as a whole (including objects)" (Cartesian Meditations, 68, para. 33). These statements suggest the strong idealist tendency in his later philosophy.

As in the 1930s, Husserl again reinvented phenomenology, this time with a shift toward the practical, or what some might call the more "existential" dimension of human knowledge. Warning of a "crisis" in European civilization based on rampant relativism and irrationalism (an alarm that the logical positivists were raising about the same time in Vienna), Husserl published his Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften (1937; Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology ). In Crisis, the focus turned to the "lifeworld" and the nature of social existence, topics that played little role in his earlier investigations of the philosophy of arithmetic and the nature of individual consciousness but would come to play a much greater role in the "existential" phenomenology that would follow. But it is much to Husserl's credit that he continued to see the inadequacies of his own method and correct them, in ever-new efforts to get phenomenology right.

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger (18891971) was a student of Husserl. Before that, he was a theology student, interested in much more concrete matters of human existence than his teacher, and his questions concerned how to live and how to live "authentically"that is, with integrity, in a complex and confusing world. His use of phenomenology was subservient to this quest, although the quest itself soon transcended the phenomenological method. Heidegger's phenomenology is most evident in his first (and greatest) book, Sein und Zeit (1927; English trans. Being and Time, 1962). Like his teacher Husserl, Heidegger insists that philosophical investigation begin without presuppositions. But Husserl, he says, still embraced Descartes's basic picture of the world, assuming that consciousness, or "the mind," was the arena in which phenomenological investigation took place. Such a philosophy could not possibly be presuppositionless. So Heidegger abandons the language of mind, consciousness, experience, and the like, but nevertheless pursues phenomenology with a new openness, a new receptivity, and a sense of oneness with the world.

Heidegger's early work is defined by two themes: first, Heidegger displays a profound anti-Cartesianism, an uncompromising holism that rejects any dualism regarding mind and body, any distinction between subject and object, and the linguistic separation of "consciousness," "experience," and "mind." This also demands a reconsideration of the Cartesian thesis that our primary relationship to the world is one of knowledge. Second, Heidegger's early philosophy is largely a search for authenticity, or what might better be described as "own-ness" (Eigentlichkeit ), which we can understand, with some qualification, as personal integrity. This search for authenticity will carry us into the now familiar but ever-renewed questions about the nature of the self and the meaning of human existence.

To ensure that we do not fall into Cartesian language, Heidegger suggests a new term (the first of many). Dasein (literally, "being-there") is the name of this being from whose perspective the world is being described. Dasein is not a consciousness or a mind, nor is it a person. It is not distinguished from the world of which it is aware. It is inseparable from that world. Dasein is, simply, "Being-in-the-World," which Heidegger insists is a "unitary phenomenon" (not being the world). Thus, phenomenology becomes ontology (the nature of being) as well.

Being-in-the-World is not primarily a process of being conscious or knowing about the world. Science is not the primary concern of Dasein. Dasein 's immediate relation to the world is better captured in the image of the craftsman, who "knows his stuff," to be sure, but might not be able to explain it to you nor even know how to show it to you. What he can dowhat he does dois engage in his craft. He shows you that he knows how to do this and that by simply doing it. This knowing how is prior, Heidegger tells us, to knowing that. In effect, our world is essentially one extended craft shop, a world of "equipment" in which we carry out various tasks and only sometimesoften when something goes wrongstop to reflect on what we are doing and look at our tools as objects, as things. They are, first of all, just tools and material to be used, and in that sense we take them for granted, relying on them without noticing them. Our concept of "things" and our knowledge of them is secondary and derivative.

Thus the notion of Dasein does not allow for the dualism of mind and body or the distinction between subject and object. All such distinctions presuppose the language of "consciousness." But Heidegger defends an uncompromising holism in which the self cannot be, as it was for Descartes, "a thinking thing," distinct from any bodily existence. But, then, what is the self? It is, at first, merely the roles that other people cast for me, as their son, their daughter, their student, their sullen playmate, their clever friend. That self, the Das Man self, is a social construction. There is nothing authentic, nothing that is my own, about it. The authentic self, by contrast, is discovered in profound moments of unique self-recognitionnotably, when one faces one's own death. And so Heidegger's phenomenology opens up the profoundly personal arena of existentialist phenomenology.

Max Scheler and Emmanuel Lévinas

Max Scheler (18741928) was also a student of Husserl, but he, too, took phenomenology in a different direction, toward ethics (which had been ignored by both Husserl and Heidegger). Scheler was an intense man whose considerable contribution to philosophy was the introduction of emotion into the overly formal Kantian conception of ethics that still ruled the Continent. In Wesen und Formen der Sympathy ( 1913; English trans. The Nature of Sympathy, 1954), he resurrected moral sentiment theory and gave a central place in ethics to such emotions as love and hate. He argued that emotions have been understood by philosophers as merely "subjective" and argued a "cognitive" view, such that emotions could be construed as a source of knowledge. There is even, he argued, an emotional a priori, a universal and necessary status to the emotions that philosophers had neglected.

Scheler summed up the theme of the unfolding century between the wars in his book, Ressentiment (1961), in which he develops Nietzsche's accusation that modern morality is a "slave morality," a morality of resentment. But where Nietzsche blames Christianity, Scheler (a Catholic) exonerates his religion and shifts the blame instead to the bourgeoisie. Scheler's phenomenology, unlike Husserl's, was primarily concerned with value and, in particular, the source of values in feelings. What was becoming evident in phenomenologyand in European philosophy more generallywas a loosening up, a rejection of formality, an acceptance and an attempt to understand the less rational aspects of human existence. Worth mentioning here as well is Emmanuel Lévinas (19061995), who also elaborated a phenomenological ethics based on our felt relations with other people. "The face" is the focus of Lévinas's phenomenology. It is an interpersonal phenomenology rather than an Ego-or Dasein-based phenomenology, and interpersonal ethics, including love, plays a central role in it.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980) attended Husserl's lectures at the Sorbonne, and he became an enthusiast of phenomenology. He was first of all concerned with the nature of human freedom and the correlative sense of responsibility. Sartre's phenomenology is largely modeled on Heidegger's work, but in his L'être et le néant (1943; English trans. Being and Nothingness, 1956) he retreats from Heidegger's attack on the Cartesian view of consciousness, Sartre argues that consciousness (described as "being-for-itself") is such that it is an activity, not a thing or substance ("no-thing"), and it is always to be distinguished from the world it intends. Consciousness is free to choose and free to "negate" (or reject) the given features of the world. Thus, Heidegger's "being-in-the world" phenomenon gives way to a conflicted portrait of human consciousness resisting and challenging the world.

As in Husserl, consciousness is essentially intentionality, but for Sartre it is nothing but intentionality, an activity directed at the world. Consciousness is active, essentially critical, and consists not just of perception, thoughts, and ideas but as much of desires, wishes, emotions, moods, impulses, and imaginings, negating the world as it is. Sartre celebrates our remarkable freedom to imagine the world other than it is. Our perceptions of the world, he argues, are always permeated by imagination, so that we are always aware of options and alternatives. Furthermore, there is no self or ego behind consciousness, no agent behind the activity. Thus, Sartre distinguishes consciousness from the self, and self, he insists, is "in the world, like the self of another [person]." The self is an ongoing project in the world.

Sartre defines his ontology in terms of the opposition of "being-in-itself" and "being-for-itself," manifested in the tension between the fact that we always find ourselves in a particular situation defined by a body of facts that we may not have chosenour "facticity"and our ability to transcend that facticity, to imagine, and chooseour transcendence. He tells us that consciousness "is what it is not, and is not what it is"a playful paradox that refers to the fact that we are always in the process of "transcending" ourselves. He also defines a third ontological category, "being-for-others," which makes our lives with other people an essential part of our existence.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

After the war, Sartre's younger colleague Maurice Merleau-Ponty (19081961) convinced him that he should modify his "absolute" insistence on freedom in his later works, although his insistence on freedom and responsibility remains. Merleau-Ponty went on to develop his own radical revision of the phenomenology of freedom and the essentially embodied nature of human consciousness. Following Sartre, Merleau-Ponty expanded the role of the body in phenomenology. Accordingly, Husserl's intentionality becomes motility, and instead of dis-embodied perception we have the body's orientation to the world. It is a radical move, and phenomenology could not quite keep up with it. So when phenomenology was replaced in French thinking, by the new wave of poststructuralism, the body retained its now privileged position but phenomenology moved to the margins. It is still practiced by diehard Husserlians and Sartreans, and it has become a valuable toolone among manyfor researchers on all sorts of psychological topics, but as an exclusive approach to philosophy, a "first philosophy," it is now for the most part simply a part of history.

See also Continental Philosophy ; Existentialism ; Kantianism ; Structuralism and Poststructuralism .


Brentano, Franz. Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint. Edited by Oskar Kraus and Linda L. McAlister. Translated by Antos C. Raucella et al. London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul, 1973.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962.

Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations. Translated by Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964.

. Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W. R. Boyce-Gibson. London: Macmillan, 1931.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Scheler, Max. Formalism in Ethics and Non-formal Ethics of Values. 5th rev. ed. Translated by Manfred S. Frings and Roger L. Funk. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973.

. The Nature of Sympathy. Translated by Peter Heath. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1954.

Solomon, Robert C. From Hegel to Existentialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

. From Rationalism to Existentialism: The Existentialists and Their Nineteenth-Century Backgrounds. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Robert C. Solomon

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Phenomenology began as a primarily twentieth-century philosophical movement that argued that the best way to come to know the world is to rigorously examine how we apprehend the world through conscious experience (Spiegelberg 1982). Evidence for the influence of phenomenology on the practice of social science can be found in the widespread use of the term phenomenology for the description of human experience (e.g., the phenomenology of mothering refers to the description of mothering experiences of real women). Nevertheless, phenomenology also entails a distinct theoretical approach to the study of human life. It is an especially useful approach to the study of families and a vital element of any attempt to achieve a cross-cultural understanding of families.

Phenomenology is the study of phenomena or the study of the world as experienced. Beginning with Edmund Husserl (1913–1931), phenomenologists have sought to understand how the things of the world are ordinarily experienced. They have therefore focused their attention on the study of the lifeworld, or everyday life of the human subject, and how it is experienced in the natural attitude. The natural attitude, the common mode of experience in everyday life, assumes and takes for granted the constitution of the social world. Through the natural attitude, individuals encounter the world as a naturally given external reality and engage the world in terms of practical, everyday life concerns. One of the aims of phenomenology is to achieve accurate descriptions of how individuals experience the world in the natural attitude.

Phenomenologists do not, however, attempt to present the experience of the subject solely from the perspective of and in the language of the subject. Since its early beginnings in continental philosophy, phenomenology has sought a more objective knowledge of the world. This knowledge can be achieved through the reduction of human experience to those elements without which the experience could not be. Reduction entails using the subject's perspective (i.e., the researcher's own experience or accounts of other's experiences) as a means to delineating the conditions of experience. To accomplish this reduction phenomenologists attempt to bracket or suspend belief in the taken-forgranted assumptions common to the natural attitude. Through bracketing, phenomenologists replace the natural attitude with a scientific attitude or an attitude of calling into question the familiar experience of the world. For early phenomenologists, reduction would lead to an explication of the necessary and universal elements of experience, while for contemporary phenomenologists, reduction leads to the formation of prototypical descriptions of experiences.

Phenomenological analysis of experience has contributed to the linguistic turn in twentieth-century philosophy and social science. Early phenomenological studies demonstrated that human experience is fundamentally informed and constituted by and through language (Heidegger 1962). Therefore, for phenomenologists, any analysis of the essential elements of experience necessitates a thorough examination of how language enables human beings to experience the world in the ways that they do. Language both enables human beings to experience their world, and it constrains how they come to experience that world. Language discloses (some of) the features of experience (while simultaneously veiling others), and in so doing alters how we experience things (Aho 1998). By bringing to reflective awareness just how language both enables and constrains experience, phenomenologists aim to show how linguistic systems not only come to stand for things, but they also come to stand between things and us (Crotty 1998). An important aim of phenomenology is to bracket the already linguistically constituted ways of encountering things and thereby facilitate encountering those things directly through experience, perhaps even bringing forth new words through which previously hidden features of experience might be revealed. In this way, phenomenologists seek to examine and displace the givenness of the natural attitude and enable experiencing things anew or re-appropriating experiences in a new way. Whereas before the experiences were taken for granted, now they can be appreciated, esteemed, and valued, or resisted, overcome, and changed in significant ways.

Although phenomenology lacks clearly demarcated schools of thought, it is useful to indicate how phenomenological analysis of the family has taken different forms. These forms vary from those approaches that seek to merely describe individual experience (mundane phenomenology) to those that focus so extensively on language that individual experiences remain in the background (family discourse analysis).

Mundane Phenomenology (Everyday Life)

Mundane phenomenology refers to those studies that aim to describe human experience as it is experienced, understood, and communicated by the subject. Such studies often do not refer to their approach as phenomenological, and when they do they merely use it in a cursory and superficial way. Methodologically, these studies aim to render human experience precisely as it is experienced in the natural attitude. The social scientist attempts to incite retrospective accounts that are faithful to the experience without imposing any researcher biases or inauthentic structure on the subject's account of the experience. Although for most phenomenologists such studies are exemplars of ethnographic research and not rigorous phenomenological analysis, they can often add important insights to our understanding of familial experience (e.g., Vaughn 1986).

Existential Phenomenology

Existential phenomenology is the most common form of phenomenology in psychology. Perhaps the most faithful to Husserlian philosophical phenomenology, the term reflects the influence of existentialist philosophical anthropology on phenomenological studies. With a heavy focus on understanding individual experience, existential phenomenology often incorporates a reliance upon the phenomenological method and/or the infusion of existentialist thought into the analysis of individual experience. The phenomenological method, as developed by Husserl and others (Spiegelberg 1982), has been adapted to fit the needs of social scientific research (Boss, Dahl, and Kaplan 1996; Giorgi 1985; Pollio, Henley, and Thompson 1997). Although psychological proponents of phenomenology do not subscribe to one single system of procedures, they do focus their efforts on developing methods that will enable the psychologist to capture the essential meaning of an experience. In contrast to more sociological forms of phenomenology, existential phenomenologists do not venture much further than an elaboration of the lived experience of the individual.

Some analysts use a phenomenological approach and incorporate forms of existential thought to study aspects of familial experience. Here, they draw on the work of Sigmund Freud, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Rollo May, Erich Fromm, and others to assist the in analysis of human experience. For example, Howard Pollio, Tracy Henley, and Craig Thompson (1997) contrast psychoanalytic and attachment theory conceptualizations of the human experience of other people with their own existential phenomenological perspective as well as analyzing the reparation of breaches in relationships and other experiences such as falling in love, loving others, and death. Other existential phenomenological studies of family life have focused on child development (Briod 1989), informal care of aged parents (Paul 1999a, 1999b), disturbed families (Laing 1971), and intimate relationships (Becker 1992).

Ethical Phenomenology

Some family scholars have begun to use the work of French phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas in their study of familial relationships. Through an extensive examination of the phenomenology of our experience of others, Levinas concludes that our relation to the other is fundamentally grounded in an ethical responsibility for the other. Levinas uses a phenomenological approach to challenge most of the assumptions that underlie psychological and sociological theories of human relations, suggesting an alternative understanding of human experience as essentially moral. The implications of such a phenomenology are only beginning to be understood for the analysis of social life (Bauman 1993; Kunz 1998). Family scholars have introduced a Levinasian phenomenological approach to the study of parent-child relations (Knapp 1999), child development (Vandenberg 1999), intimacy (Beyers and Reber 1998; Williams and Gantt 1998), and family relationships (Knapp 2000).

Social Phenomenology

Building upon the work of Alfred Schutz, sociologists have emphasized the social and intersubjective nature of our experience of others. Here the focus is on understanding how shared meanings, social contexts, and social interaction enable the construction of intersubjective experience. Schutz argued that people depend upon language and the stock of knowledge they have acquired to enable social interaction. All social interaction requires that individuals typify others and their world, and the stock of knowledge assists them in this task. The particularity of the shared understandings achieved through social interaction will vary depending upon the social distance between the actors involved. The closer the position of others in the lifeworld, the more particular, rich, and full will be the understandings of the meaning of other's actions. If the lifeworld of the other person is more distant, then the understanding or typification of their actions will be narrower, more invariant, and more inflexible.

In a classic application of social phenomenology, Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner (1964) examined the social construction of a marital reality. According to their analysis, marriage brought together two individuals from different lifeworlds and thrust them into such close proximity to one another that the lifeworld of each would be brought into dialogue with the other. Out of these two divergent realities would emerge a convergent marital reality that would become the primary social context from which the individual would engage in other social interactions and function in society. This construction of a new social reality (i.e., the marriage) was achieved largely through conversation between the couples in private, but it was also strengthened significantly through the couple's interaction with others outside the marriage in ways that took for granted the social reality of the marriage. Over time a new marital reality would emerge that would be of such consequence for each of the spouses that it would contribute to the formation of new social worlds within which each spouse would function.

Other approaches to family that exemplify a social phenomenological approach include Raymond McLain and Andrew Weigert's (1979) analysis of the basic features of the experience of family and Louise Levesque-Lopman's (1988) interpretation of women's experience, particularly pregnancy and childbirth.

Ethnomethodology and Family Discourse

Ethnomethodology, an approach developed by Harold Garfinkel, emerged out of social phenomenology as a reaction against Parsonian functionalism. Ethnomethodology refers to people's (ethno) methods for making sense of their world. Although building upon a phenomenological foundation, ethnomethodology extends the phenomenological concern for explicating what constitutes an experience to an analysis of how an experience is accomplished.

This subtle shift in focus moves ethnomethodology away from an analysis of experience per se to an analysis of how people make sense of their experience. The end result of such a shift is that ethnomethodologists focus on everyday language use and examine how everyday language in use both constitutes its context and is constituted by its context.

For ethnomethodologically inspired scholars, the study of familial experience becomes the study of how family is produced through language use or discourse (Gubrium and Holstein 1993). Family emerges whenever it is talked about, whenever the discourse constructs social relations as familial. Enacting family through talk does not mean one can make family any way she pleases. Rather, family discourse always depends on context and is sensitive to the situation. Therefore, scholars must carefully examine how the social organization of the context within which family discourse is evoked conditions the use of family discourse and also how family discourse serves to construct the context itself. Understanding family as a discursive production enables scholars to examine family as an organizationally embedded social reality. Family can be studied wherever family discourse occurs. Through this approach, family scholars have examined how family is enacted in family therapy clinics, nursing homes, the judicial system, and a wide variety of organizational settings (Gubrium and Holstein 1990; Holstein and Gubrium 1995).

Although future developments in phenomenological studies of family life are likely to occur, phenomenology remains an underutilized theoretical resource in the study of the family. It holds great promise for assisting scholars in understanding various aspects of familial experience and how family realities are constructed through language use in a wide variety of contexts. In particular, phenomenological approaches can facilitate a greater understanding of the cultural diversity of familial experience that characterizes social life at the beginning of the new millennium.

See also:Family Theory


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berger, p. l., and kellner, h. (1964). "marriage and the construction of reality." diogenes 46:1–25.

beyers, m. s., and reber, j. s. (1998). "the illusion of intimacy: a levinasian critique of evolutionary psychology." journal of theoretical and philosophical psychology 18:176–192.

boss, p.; dahl, c.; and kaplan, l. (1996). "the use of phenomenology for family therapy research: the search for meaning." in research methods in family therapy, ed. d. h. sprenkle and s. m. moon. new york: guilford press.

briod, m. (1989). "a phenomenological approach to child development." in existential-phenomenological perspectives in psychology: exploring the breadth of human experience, ed. r. s. valle and s. halling. new york: plenum press.

crotty, m. (1998). the foundations of social research:meaning and perspective in the research process. thousand oaks, ca: sage.

giorgi, a. (1985). phenomenology and psychological research. pittsburgh, pa: duquesne university press.

gubrium, j. f., and holstein, j. a. (1990). what is family? mountain view, ca: mayfield.

gubrium, j. f., and holstein, j. a. (1993). "phenomenology, ethnomethodology, and family discourse." in sourcebook of family theories and methods: a contextual approach, ed. p. boss, w. doherty, r. larossa, w. schumm, and s. steinmetz. new york: plenum.

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knapp, s. j. (1999). "facing the child: rethinking models of agency in parent-child relations." contemporary perspectives on family research 1:53–75.

knapp, s. j. (2000). "emmanuel levinas and the moral displacement of knowledge: rethinking the relation between the moral and social orders." current perspectives in social theory 20:187–213.

kunz, g. (1998). the paradox of power and weakness:levinas and an alternative paradigm for psychology. albany, ny: suny press.

laing, r. d. (1971). the politics of the family: and otheressays. new york: vintage books.

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mclain, r., and weigert, a. (1979). "toward a phenomenological sociology of family: a programmatic essay." in contemporary theories about the family, vol. 2., ed. w. r. burr; r. hill; f. i. nye; and i. l. reiss. new york: free press.

paul, l. j. (1999a). "phenomenology as a method for the study of informal care." journal of family studies 5:192–206.

paul, l. j. (1999b). "caring for aged parents: phenomenology and relationships." journal of family studies 5:207–219.

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stan j. knapp

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At the beginning of the twentieth century the philosopher Edmund Husserl (18591938) formulated phenomenology both as a philosophical perspective and as a theory of knowledge. It had a great impact on a variety of social sciences. To Husserl, reality is not given, but is constituted. It is thus apprehended in human experience and given meaning and form. Humans look upon their reality as given in a natural and unquestioned way. It is the task of the philosopher to penetrate beyond the taken-for-grantedness of the world of experience (Lebenswelt ) through a bracketing procedure (epoché ) in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the essence of phenomena. For example, the phenomenologist may look at the multiple ways in which humans experience the color red and how they give meaning to it. He or she then has to bracket the definitions of red as phenomena or appearances of essential redness.

In his endeavor to establish the basis for an interpretative sociology, Alfred Schutz (18991959) critically adopted Max Webers insistence that understanding social action was the methodological and epistemological foundation of sociology. However, understanding involved the two perspectives of the actor and observer, and the sociologist most frequently occupies the latter position. Taking Husserls notion of the everyday world of experience characterized by the natural attitude of uncritical acceptance, Schutz accounted for social reality as one in which people cognitively suspend doubt. This is the domain of first order constructs. The sociologist, on the other hand, suspends belief in the way Husserl bracketed the world of appearances. This is the domain of second order constructs resulting from sociological reflection. Schutz laid bare the structure of the life world in terms of typifications people make in everyday life along the axes of familiarity and strangeness in space and time. On the basis of these first order constructs the sociologist embarks on the construction of ideal types through a rigorous procedure. Good examples of these ideal typifications can be found in his essays titled The Stranger (1944) and The Homecomer (1945).

Schutz laid the foundations of social constructionism for a wide range of social, cultural, and feminist studies. Widening the perspective beyond the social domain was one of the main contributions of his students, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. In their seminal work The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), they positioned phenomenology as a perspective rather than as an alternative paradigm in sociology. In their rendering of a sociology of knowledge from a phenomenological perspective, they demonstrate how reality as such, not just social reality, is constructed and installed as objective reality, which in turn affects societys members subjectively through processes of internalization and socialization. Other social thinkers such as George Psathas adhere to the idea of a phenomenological sociology as an alternative paradigm to functionalism.

Ethnomethodology seeks to problematize the everyday world taken for granted. Its objective is not the interpretation of first order constructs, but exploring how and by what methods people achieve and sustain a sense of order, normality, and morality in their lives. Aaron Cicourel and Harold Garfinkel pioneered this approach. Garfinkel adopted a methodological procedure akin to bracketing through his breaching experiments, during which the investigator acts as a stranger in familiar situations. Societys members reaction to the breaching of social order and rules demonstrate their background expectations about this order and their desire to restore rule-governed situations.

The phenomenological perspectives focus on the subjective and everyday aspects of human existence proved attractive to investigators from a spectrum of inquiry including medicine, law, architectures, literature, the environment, ethnicity, gender, embodiment, history, and technology. Methodologically phenomenological investigations rely heavily on ethnographies and other qualitative measures.

With its emphasis on reality as a social construct, phenomenologically oriented social science provides fresh insights on local and global issues. Looking at race and racism, for example, it exposes racial orders, in whatever society they occur as historically constructed entities objectified as real. To societys members it demonstrates how a specific racial order appears cognitively as common-sense and legitimated as natural and how they are made to believe in its inevitability and normality. Finally it throws light on how empowered insiders construct and maintain racial hierarchies and their predominance in them by remaining racially invisible while racializing other groups and assigning them to their proper place in society.

Some have criticized phenomenological approaches as conservative due to their preoccupation with the mundane and commonsense aspects of life. This may be true for some studies, but phenomenologys insistence on a radical critique of knowledge resists any social structures self-interested appropriation of social science.

SEE ALSO Ethnomethodology


Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. 1972. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Crowell, Steven, Lester Embree, and Samuel J. Julian, eds. 2001. The Reach of Reflection, Issues for Phenomenologys Second Century. Available from

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Psathas, George, ed. 1973. Phenomenological Sociology: Issues and Applications. New York: John Wiley.

Schutz, Alfred. 1967. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Gerhard Schutte

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Phenomenology (Gk., phainomenon, ‘that which appears’, + logos, ‘reflection’). The study of the ways in which appearances manifest themselves. The phenomenology of religion is thus the study of religious appearances; it may also embrace reflection on the nature of what gives rise to them. The term is used of endeavours to study religion, without commitment to the truth or otherwise of what is being studied, and with the suspension of value-judgements about the worth or otherwise of what is being studied. Such a wide understanding of the term allows many different styles of the study of religion to be called ‘phenomenological’. Whether any such value-free study is possible remains a matter of doubt—or at best of dispute.

The term was first used by J. H. Lambert in 1764, but with the completely different sense of the theory of appearance as one of four philosophical disciplines. As a term it appears e.g. in Kant and Hegel. In its more modern sense, it is particularly associated with the work of Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). He was a pupil of Franz Brentano, and therefore began his work on the foundations of mathematics. Husserl began to realize not only that philosophers had failed to resolve the issue between solipsists and realists, but that it would make no practical difference to the lived and experienced world if they did so. Clearly, philosophical doubt must be driven further back: Descartes had thought that he had secured a foundation of certain knowledge in his cogito, ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’); but Husserl pointed out that the conclusion is not entailed; therefore he proposed that the only secure foundation of knowledge lies in the cogito: all that we can be sure of (and from this it is clear that Husserl remained a foundationalist despite some interpretations of his thought to the contrary) are cogitationes, appearances in consciousness.

In his later works (the most accessible of which are Cartesian Meditations, 1931, and The Paris Lectures, 1950), he argued that transcendental phenomenology ‘brackets out’ (epoche) all assumptions about existence, truth, and value, and analyses the cogitationes in terms of the stream of consciousness. But since consciousness is directed to what it takes to be an external world (or to its own past and future, etc.) through its Intentionalität (intentionality), it is legitimate to consider, perhaps even to infer, what may be a ground, in independence from consciousness, sufficient to give rise to the particular appearances in consciousness which happen to arise—especially when these arise with consistency. In this way, Husserl was able to return those degrees of reality to the world which the consistency of the data in consciousness seemed to require. Thus ‘you’ may appear in my consciousness with the consistency of a person whom I can label and name; I do not have to resolve the argument about solipsism before extending the intentionality of my consciousness toward ‘you’ as a consistent appearance in my own consciousness (i.e. I can bracket out the issue of whether you are truly there or not, or in what sense). Moreover, ‘you’ appear in my consciousness with the characteristic of marking off other appearances with an equal consistency, so that together we can label a world of appearances and name it—that is why Husserl called people ‘walking object indices’.

Through this process, it is possible to build up a world of intersubjective reliability without solving first the contentious philosophical issues of existence. An obvious candidate was the world of the natural sciences. At the very end of his life, Husserl realized that there is an extensive reliability in the world of theology (or more exactly of prayer and worship, etc.), and that his method required him to return a corresponding degree of reality to God.

Husserl's thought proved immensely fertile, both in philosophy (leading directly into existentialism) and in the study of religion. Virtually no phenomenologist of religion has ever followed a strictly Husserlian programme: words and indications are picked up from his thought, and are brought to bear in largely novel ways. Thus the early phenomenologists of religion were attracted by the prospect of identifying essences (understood loosely as identifying essential characteristics in religions or in religious beliefs and practices). This proved largely unilluminating, since it tended to squeeze an ocean into a thimble. Others seized on epoche and understood phenomenology to be description on the basis of which one might be able to enter empathetically into the phenomena being described. The most sophisticated attempt was made by Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890–1950), in Phänomenologie der Religion (1933, tr. as Religion in Essence and Manifestation); he achieved brilliant insights, especially in the relation of religion to power, but in fact he made little attempt to bracket out his own assumptions.

Thus phenomenology has been a powerful influence, but the phenomenology of religion remains to be undertaken. As matters stand, phenomenology has transformed the study of religion in schools, colleges, and universities at the first level: it has ushered in the dispassionate (as opposed to confessional) teaching of religion, in a way which brackets out questions of whether e.g. God or gods ‘exist’: religions are studied as an important expression of human life. But the second level (as Husserl envisaged it, albeit in dense language) is always demanded by the first: given that these are the phenomena, what in reality has given rise to them, or brought them into being? The integration of the two levels has not yet been achieved.

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phenomenology, phenomenological sociology Phenomenology is a philosophical method of inquiry developed by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. It involves the systematic investigation of consciousness. Consciousness, it is argued, is the only phenomenon of which we can be sure. It is assumed that our experience of the world, including everything from our perception of objects through to our knowledge of mathematical formulae, is constituted in and by consciousness. To trace this process of constitution, we have to disregard what we know about the world, and address the question of how, or by what processes, that knowledge comes into being. This strategy is known as bracketing or phenomenological reduction.

On the face of it phenomenology does not seem to offer much inspiration to sociology. Husserl started with individual consciousness and found himself in trouble over establishing that other people actually exist. It is less surprising that phenomenology was developed principally by the major existentialist thinkers of the twentieth century. The (controversial) bridge to sociology was established by a pupil of Husserl, Alfred Schutz, who fled the rise of fascism in Europe and combined his work as a philosopher, in the United States, with work as a banker. His Phenomenology of the Social World (1932) sets out the basic principles of phenomenological sociology. It describes how, from a basic stream of undifferentiated experience, we construct the objects and our knowledge of these objects that we take for granted in our everyday lives. The basic act of consciousness is (first-order) typification: bringing together typical and enduring elements in the stream of experience, building up typical models of things and people, and building a shared social world. The job of the sociologist is to construct second-order typifications: a rational model of the social world based on the (first-order) theories which actors offer to explain their own activities. Schutz talks about sociology as creating a world of rational puppets which we then manipulate to discover how people might act in the real world.

Phenomenology became a resource for sociologists in the late 1960s as many of the orthodoxies of the post-war period were rejected. Its most lasting influence has been on ethnomethodology. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in The Social Construction of Reality (1966), offered a general social theory based on phenomenology claiming to combine the features of theories both of social action and social structure: the social world is constructed through processes of typifications, which then take on an objective quality, above and beyond the social groups who produce them. Around the same time, this notion of objectification was connected by some authors to Karl Marx's theory of alienation, in an attempt to produce humanist forms of Marxism. One source of inspiration for this work was Husserl's later studies of science, which argued that the sciences had become divorced from the fabric of human experience, and were in fact obstructing (alienating) our understanding of ourselves.

A few of these ideas have fed into the sociological mainstream but there is no distinctive phenomenological school of sociology now in existence. See also COMMONSENSE KNOWLEDGE; INTERPRETATION.

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phenomenology, modern school of philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl. Its influence extended throughout Europe and was particularly important to the early development of existentialism. Husserl attempted to develop a universal philosophic method, devoid of presuppositions, by focusing purely on phenomena and describing them; anything that could not be seen, and thus was not immediately given to the consciousness, was excluded. The concern was with what is known, not how it is known. The phenomenological method is thus neither the deductive method of logic nor the empirical method of the natural sciences; instead it consists in realizing the presence of an object and elucidating its meaning through intuition. Husserl considered the object of the phenomenological method to be the immediate seizure, in an act of vision, of the ideal intelligible content of the phenomenon. Notable members of the school have been Roman Ingarden, Max Scheler, Emmanuel Levinas, and Marvin Farber.

See E. Husserl, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (tr. 1931, repr. 1989) and Cartesian Meditations (tr. 1960, repr. 1970); M. Farber, The Foundation of Phenomenology (1943, repr. 1967); R. Zanes, Way of Phenomenology (1970); M. A. Natanson, ed., Phenomenology and the Social Sciences (2 vol., 1973); H. Spiegelberg, The Phenomenological Movement (1981); R. Grossman, Phenomenology and Existentialism (1984).

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"phenomenology." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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phenomenology School of philosophy founded by Edmund Husserl and influential in the development of existentialism. Husserl argued that philosophy should focus on human consciousness. Objects of consciousness (phenomena) were always mediated by the conscious mind. In contrast to empiricism or deductive logic, Husserl concentrated on the description of subjective experience through intuition rather than analysis. See also Heidegger; Sartre

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phenomenology (fin-om-in-ol-ŏji) n. the study of occurrences forming part of human experiences. Concerned with describing the facts of the immediate situation, rather than speculating about causes, it helps nurses and patients to understand the phenomena in question and may lead to an improved understanding of oneself and others.

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