20 April 2017

Husserl founded phenomenology a century ago. Many important philosophers are phenomenologists, like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre.  But What in the world is phenomenology?

Let’s start with the word. In the relevant sense, “phenomenon” means something observed, for which one wants to know the unobserved cause or explanation.

For example, glaciers are an interesting phenomenon. But where did they come from? The phenomenological move is to say, “Let’s study the phenomenon itself first, and leave the explanation aside, at least for the time being. But of course Husserl wasn’t interested in glaciers. He was interested in experience.  

Philosophers like Descartes taught us that we are directly aware of our own experiences, but then immediately asked for the explanation for the phenomenon of experience… what our experiences can teach us about the external world. Husserl made the phenomenological move with respect to experience. He said, wait, for starters, let’s study the experiences themselves. He said, “Let’s put aside the issue of where they come from and what they provide evidence for.” In his terminology, let’s bracket all of those issues. And then he did that, producing thousands and thousands of pages. Of which I have read a very small proportion. He makes lots of fascinating distinctions and claims. But it’s very difficult stuff.

It seems phenomenology ought to be of interest to cognitive science, since cognitive science studies the mind, and experience is a big part of the mind.  The phenomonologist most cited in cognitive science is probably not Husserl, but a fellow named Merleau-Ponty.

As I understand it, Merleau-Ponty thought that to understand experience—lived experience—we shouldn’t bracket everything. We shouldn’t bracket action and the body. As we experience experiences in our lives, one might say, they can’t be understood completely on their own, but need to be seen as part of intelligent action.

Thus, these days phenomenology is connected to ideas of philosophers like Dretske, who saw experience as the pickup of information relevant to action.  Husserl to Dretske—seems like a big leap! But that’s the way things go in philosophy.



Comments (5)

Ruth shill's picture

Ruth shill

Monday, April 24, 2017 -- 12:57 PM

Very confused. Want to listen

Very confused. Want to listen to phenomenology episode. But cannot fathom how to listen 'not live'. What am I doing wrong??

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Monday, April 24, 2017 -- 2:00 PM

Hi Ruth,

Hi Ruth,

That episode is being broadcast on our various affiliate stations this week and will be available on our website at the end of the week. If you want to listen to it before then and your local radio station doesn't broadcast our show, then you can tune in to the rebroadcast of the show on our home station, KALW 91.7FM, on Tuesday at noon (PDT). Here's the link for that:

Also, if your local public radio station doesn't carry Philosophy Talk, please consider writing to the station manager or program director and asking them why not! :-)


Carl Hosticka's picture

Carl Hosticka

Sunday, May 14, 2017 -- 8:58 PM

The ideas expressed on this

The ideas expressed on this show are parallel to ancient Tibetan Buddhist thought.

See "Studying Mind from the Inside" from The Universe in a Singe Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Doubleday Broadway Publishing House 2015

corsmith's picture


Friday, September 15, 2017 -- 3:23 AM

Your point of view on this

Your point of view on this topic is very interesting. And I think you're right. I used to read works of different philosophers and I can surely say that some of them belong to phenomenologists.Their manner of thinking is different from the others, for example like this one . It's important to distinguish them because they rely to different spheres.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, March 17, 2022 -- 1:45 PM

Did not know much of Husserl,

Did not know much of Husserl, until recently.. His natural attitude sounds a bit like the physical stance postulate of a more modern thinker. Finding interesting stuff on some other blogs. Am sure my comments will ruffle more feathers. Never stopped me before...

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