Sociology Index

Phenomenology

Phenomenology is the philosophical study of observed phenomena. Phenomenology is a philosophical movement originating in the 20th century, the objective of which is the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions. Phenomenology is a broad discipline and method of inquiry in philosophy, developed largely by the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, which is based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events called phenomena, as they are perceived or understood in the human consciousness, and not of anything independent of human consciousness.

Phenomenology is a philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness. The task of phenomenological sociology, like that of every other phenomenological investigation in phenomenology, is to account for, the formal structures of this object of investigation in terms of subjectivity.

 Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning which represents the object, together with appropriate enabling conditions.

Phenomenology as a discipline is distinct from but related to other key disciplines in philosophy, such as ontology, epistemology, logic, and ethics. Phenomenology has been practiced in various guises for centuries, but it came into its own in the early 20th century in the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others. Phenomenology is understood in either of two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy. The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.

The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre. In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy, as opposed, say, to ethics or metaphysics or epistemology. The term “phenomenology” is often restricted to the characterization of sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, and so on: what it is like to have sensations of various kinds. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. In the phenomenological tradition, phenomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our life-world.

Phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. The structure of these forms of experience typically involves what Husserl called “intentionality”, that is, the directedness of experience toward things in the world, the property of consciousness that it is a consciousness of or about something. According to classical Husserlian phenomenology, our experience is directed toward, represents or intends, things only through particular concepts, thoughts, ideas, images, and so on. These make up the meaning or content of a given experience, and are distinct from the things they present or mean.

Phenomenology studies structures of conscious experience as experienced from the first-person point of view, along with relevant conditions of experience. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, the way it is directed through its content or meaning toward a certain object in the world. Classical phenomenologists practiced some three distinguishable methods.

(1) We describe a type of experience just as we find it in our own experience. Thus, Husserl and Merleau-Ponty spoke of pure description of lived experience.

(2) We interpret a type of experience by relating it to relevant features of context. In this vein, Heidegger and his followers spoke of hermeneutics, the art of interpretation in context, especially social and linguistic context.

(3) We analyze the form of a type of experience. In the end, all the classical phenomenologists practiced analysis of experience, factoring out notable features for further elaboration.

Conscious experience is the starting point of phenomenology, but experience shades off into less overtly conscious phenomena. As Husserl and others stressed, we are only vaguely aware of things in the margin or periphery of attention, and we are only implicitly aware of the wider horizon of things in the world around us. Moreover, as Heidegger stressed, in practical activities like walking along, or hammering a nail, or speaking our native tongue, we are not explicitly conscious of our habitual patterns of action. Furthermore, as psychoanalysts have stressed, much of our intentional mental activity is not conscious at all, but may become conscious in the process of therapy or interrogation, as we come to realize how we feel or think about something. We should allow, then, that the domain of phenomenology—our own experience—spreads out from conscious experience into semi-conscious and even unconscious mental activity, along with relevant background conditions implicitly invoked in our experience.

To begin an elementary exercise in phenomenology, consider some typical experiences one might have in everyday life, characterized in the first person:
I hear that helicopter whirring overhead as it approaches the school.
I walk carefully around the broken glass strewn around.
Each sentence is a simple form of phenomenological description, articulating in everyday English the structure of the type of experience so described. The subject term “I” indicates the first-person structure of the experience: the intentionality proceeds from the subject. The verb indicates the type of intentional activity described: perception, thought, and imagination. Of central importance is the way that objects of awareness are presented or intended in our experiences, especially, the way we see or conceive or think about objects.

The Oxford English Dictionary presents the following definition: “Phenomenology. a. The science of phenomena as distinct from being (ontology). b. That division of any science which describes and classifies its phenomena. From the Greek phainomenon, appearance.” In philosophy, the term is used in the first sense, amid debates of theory and methodology. In physics and philosophy of science, the term is used in the second sense, albeit only occasionally.

Originally, in the 18th century, “phenomenology” meant the theory of appearances fundamental to empirical knowledge, especially sensory appearances. The Latin term “Phenomenologia” was introduced by Christoph Friedrich Oetinger in 1736. Subsequently, the German term “Phänomenologia” was used by Johann Heinrich Lambert, a follower of Christian Wolff. Immanuel Kant used the term occasionally in various writings, as did Johann Gottlieb Fichte. In 1807, G. W. F. Hegel wrote a book titled Phänomenologie des Geistes (usually translated as Phenomenology of Spirit). By 1889 Franz Brentano used the term to characterize what he called “descriptive psychology”. From there Edmund Husserl took up the term for his new science of consciousness.