The “Core” of Phenomenology


“Phenomenology is one of the major strands of post Kantian philosophy. But it isn’t easy to pin down exactly what the name captures. Can you first sketch for us what you think is its core and whether there actually is a core—something some philosophers have disputed haven’t they?”

“Yes, but then again, think of recent efforts to provide a clear definition of analytic philosophy. This has not exactly proven easy either.”

That’s Richard Marshall putting a big question to Dan Zahavi (Copenhagen), and the start of Professor Zahavi’s answer, in an interview at 3:AM Magazine.

Zahavi prefaces his answer with some qualifications:

Admittedly there is a lot of heterogeneity in phenomenology. Many of the principal figures in the movement kept refining and developing their own views over the years. Often their thinking underwent so decisive transformations that it has become customary to differentiate early and later stages in their philosophy, and to distinguish, say, the early Husserl from the later Husserl, or Heidegger before and after the turn. Furthermore, as Ricoeur once put it, the history of phenomenology is the history of heresies; each generation of post-Husserlian phenomenologists took inspiration from the work of the founding figures, but kept transforming and modifying the methodology, scope, and aim of the phenomenological enterprise.

But although phenomenology has in many ways developed as a movement with many branches; although all post-Husserlian phenomenologists have distanced themselves from various aspects of Husserl’s original program, and although it would be an exaggeration to claim that phenomenology is a philosophical system with a clearly delineated body of doctrines, one should in my view not overlook the overarching concerns and common themes that have united and continue to unite its proponents. My own approach over the years has been characterized by an attempt to focus on the similarities and commonalities. If phenomenology is to have a future, I think it is urgent to articulate and develop what is common to the phenomenological enterprise instead of remaining stuck in the kind of sectarian trench warfare that has regrettably plagued its history. Too much energy has been devoted to a highlighting of internal differences, rather than common strengths. It is regrettable, but perhaps not overly surprising, that the criticism of phenomenology that we find in figures like Smart, Dennett or Metzinger is more than matched by the ridicule expressed by some phenomenologists vis-à-vis other phenomenologists.

He then gives us his sketch of the core of phenomenology:

So what is the core? Very briefly put, I think phenomenologists reject various forms of reductionism, objectivism, and scientism. They insist on foregrounding the experiential perspective, and are more interested in descriptive adequacy than in explanatory mechanisms. Central to their efforts is an attempt to characterize and understand the pre-scientific lifeworld, which they consider the origin and ground of scientific theorizing. Central dimensions targeted by phenomenological analysis include intentionality, temporality, embodiment, and sociality. Phenomenologists consider the subject an embodied and socially and culturally embedded being-in-the-world, and argue that we need to factor in the role played by embodied, perceiving, thinking and feeling agents if we want to understand the world we are living in.

Keeping in mind the interview setting in which this account was offered, how’s that for an answer to, “so what is phenomenology, anyway?”

The full interview is here.

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