Phenomenology: Definitions and Basic Concepts

The pedagogy of phenomenology is rather a complex topic to understand, especially when one is not acquainted with the subject. Before we delve into the concept of phenomenology, let us first understand the term etymologically. Phenomenology comes from two terms, phenomena meaning things as they appear and logy meaning science or study. Putting the meanings together, we get the study of things as they appear. Phenomenology is not a subject that has been founded but a subject that grew. This subject grew significantly in the 20th Century and the founder of is Mr Edmund Husserl.

The recent definitions of phenomenology are –

  • The study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through such experiences as given by Sokolowski.
  • The study of the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view according to Smith.

Though these recent definitions give us a glimpse of what phenomenology is, to understand it better we need to understand what Husserl meant. Husserl focused on consciousness and thought of phenomenology as a kind of descriptive enterprise that specifies the structures that characterize consciousness and the world as we experience it. To put it in simple terms, it means a way of seeing things rather than a set of doctrines. It is a method that attempted to give a description of the way things appear in our conscious experience. It is said that the way things appear in our consciousness is actually very different from how it is in reality. Phenomenologists try to understand the perception in terms of the meaning it has for the subjects.

To understand phenomenology better, let us look into the goal and method of phenomenology.

Goal and Method of studying Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a philosophy that works from below and not from above. Phenomenology is built upon consciousness. ‘To the things themselves’ means that the things that are observed by the subject as an act of consciousness and these things are what Husserl calls the phenomena. The goal of phenomenology is to discover the essential structures of the acts and the objective entities that correspond to them.

The basic method of studying the subject of phenomenology is through the process of Reduction. It is believed that in this process, the existence of the world must be out in brackets; this is because the existing world is not the theme of phenomenology. The theme of phenomenology is the manner in which knowledge of the world comes. There are three reductions that come in a systematic order which is as follows –

  1. Everything is reduced to phenomena – this is known by consciousness such as intuition, recollection, imagination, and judgment. Intuition means an activity in which a person grasps something immediately.

Let us try to understand these reductions with the help of an example. Suppose, you are staring out of the window on to the car parked on the street. Since everything is reduced to a phenomenon, that is things as they appear, you realise that the object is a car.

  1. Eidetic Reduction – according to this reduction one must forgo everything that is factual. It is a means of grasping essence. On forms multiplicity of variations of a given object, but one focuses attention on what remains the same throughout all the variations. This object that remains constant is called the invariant by Husserl.

For the example, while staring at the car out of the window, you either have your conscious asking you to clean the car, or ride it, or open the trunk and collect the needful. There are multiple variations of the objects but the invariant is the car. We forgo the factual object, car and ponder over the multiple tasks that are a possibility.

  1. Transcendental Reduction – The fundamental event that is occurring in your consciousness is the creation that is happening either through the acts of past or the acts of future.

For the example, you think of cleaning the car because you drove it in the rain and all the mud got on the car, you want to ride it because you need to go to work or you want to open the trunk and collect stuff because you might have just come from grocery shopping.

The above three reductions help understand the phenomenological method of understanding consciousness which is unlike the introspective psychology.

Basic Concepts of Phenomenology

Phenomenologists must examine the different forms of intentionality in a reflective attitude. This is to be done because it is through the intentionality that each domain of objects becomes accessible. In order to be able to investigate, it is necessary to discover the founding act by which realities are constituted. It is said that there is a meaning for consciousness which is made possible only through transcendental reduction. The idea is to question the last source of achievement.

Phenomenology is not outside the arena of science but it helps present the unquestioned presuppositions of the sciences. Husserl, in his last book, reaches the life-world – according to him it is the world as shaped within the immediate experience of each individual; by questioning back the foundations that science presupposes.

Further Developments

With time phenomenology developed diversely taking different paths from what Husserl has begun. Phenomenology has diverged into many topics that have been studied in the later stages by many scholars. To name a few – phenomenological psychology and pure logic, aesthetics, philosophy of law, some tried to develop it on the lines of realism, and Heidegger’s hermeneutic phenomenology.

Over time, phenomenology left the boundaries of Germany and spread from France to the United States to the world over. Scholars from all the regions have studied phenomenology, interpreted and tried to expand it. It has also extended its branches into other disciplines like – Math, Biological Sciences, Psychology, Sociology, Study of Religion, History and most recently Cognitive Sciences.

Phenomenology has indeed come a long way and grew to be one of the greatly admired topics amongst the scholars.


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Sunaina is an undergraduate student pursuing Political Science and Economics from the University of Delhi. She finds herself in a never-ending quest!