What Is Phenomenology? An Introduction for the Uninitiated

Comments on Pope John Paul II’s recent encyclical Veritatis splendor have drawn attention to the fact that in his writings the Holy Father makes use of the philosophical tradition called phenomenology. But what is phenomenology and how does the Pope employ it?

Phenomenology has been one of the dominant philosophical and cultural developments in the twentieth century, but its influence has been greater in Continental Europe than in the United States and England. It has an identifiable beginning; it was founded by Edmund Husserl, who was born in 1859 in Prostejov, in Moravia. Husserl studied science, mathematics, philosophy, and psychology at Leipzig, Berlin, Vienna, and Halle. His doctoral thesis was in mathematics and his habilitation—the German postdoctoral degree—was on the philosophy of arithmetic. Husserl began his academic career as a teacher at Halle. One of the major influences on the young Husserl was the work of Franz Brentano, who, as a Dominican, had been educated in Thomism and later introduced the scholastic idea of intentionality into contemporary philosophy.

Problems that arose in Husserl’s philosophy of mathematics led him to expand his work into the philosophy of logic and knowledge. These studies led to his first great book, Logical Investigations, which appeared in two parts in 1900-01, right at the beginning of the twentieth century. Publication of this book moved Husserl into prominence in the philosophical world of Germany and led to his appointment to a chair at Gottingen in 1901, where he remained until moving to Freiburg in 1916. Husserl published four more books in his lifetime: Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Psychology (1913 ), Lectures on Internal Time-Consciousness (1918), Formal and Transcendental Logic (1929), and Cartesian Meditations (1931). He taught at Freiburg until his retirement in 1928, where he remained until his death in 1938.

Husserl also drafted many manuscripts which were collected by his assistants during the later years of his life. Since Husserl was of Jewish ancestry, it was feared that after his death his papers might be destroyed by the Nazi regime, and so his papers and library were secretly removed to Belgium by Herman Leo Van Breda, O.F.M. Father Van Breda also arranged to have Husserl’s widow sheltered in Louvain during the occupation. After the war, he established the Husserl Archives at Louvain, and many further volumes of Husserl’s works have been published under its aegis. The Husserl Archives became an important center for Continental philosophy, and affiliated archives were established at Cologne, Paris, Freiburg, and New York.


Husserl’s work stimulated phenomenological centers at Göttingen and Munich and influenced the thought of many German thinkers, such as Max Scheler, Alexander Pfander, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, Edith Stein, and Dietrich von Hildebrand, but certainly the most famous name associated with Husserl is Martin Heidegger. As a graduate student and young teacher, Heidegger was influenced by Husserl’s Logical Investigations, but he was an independent and original thinker and in a short time eclipsed his mentor in the public mind. He taught at Marburg from 1923 to 1928, when he succeeded Husserl at Freiburg.

The phenomenological movement exercised a considerable influence in France after the Second World War, in the work of such figures as Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Ricoeur, and Emmanuel Levinas. Phenomenology was, along with Thomism, the stimulus behind the strong philosophical school at the University of Louvain in the decades following the war. Earlier in the century phenomenology had influenced Polish philosophy as well as the philosophy and literary theory of pre-revolutionary Russia. There were also contacts in England and the United States, but they were cut short by the cultural isolation of Germany during the Nazi period and by the development of linguistic and analytic philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world after the war. An amusing relic of the affiliation between English letters and phenomenology can be found in a quotation from Husserl in T.S. Eliot’s early poem, “Coriolan: Triumphal March.” The stately line, from W.R. Boyce-Gibson’s translation of Ideas (§39), is easy to identify, and I leave to the reader the pleasure of discovering it.

Restoring Reality

Husserl’s first philosophical work dealt with the nature of numbers, and his analysis of number can be used to furnish an idea of how phenomenology explains things. Husserl draws a contrast between numbers as directly given to us and numbers as intended in their absence. We have a number like “four” directly given when we take four items (a book, a pencil, a ruler, a box) as one. We collect these items into a single whole and intend them as a new, higher-level (“categorical”) unity. When we do this the concrete group is constituted as an object for us. We further specify the group as four by contrasting it with other groups that are larger or smaller (with that group of five, or this group of three). In such an operation of collection and contrast, we perceive or intuit an instance of the number four.

Husserl says that only relatively small numbers can be given in such an intuitive way, in their actual presence. Most of the numbers we deal with are referred to in their absence; we can speak of, say, 25,289 penguins, but we could not take in such a collection intuitively as one. We can only speak of it symbolically, as something that could in principle be counted, not as a single perceptual presentation. However, even symbolically presented groups or numbers acquire their sense as numbers from the few cases that are directly presented to us. The meaning of number as such is given to us in our direct intuition.

Notice that this phenomenological analysis of numbers does not just speak about numbers; rather, it speaks about the correlation between numbers as objects and ourselves as the ones to whom the numbers are given. Phenomenology always speaks about the correlation between object and subject, not about either the object alone or the subject alone. Suppose, for example, we set out to give a philosophical account of pictures; we would have to describe not just how pictures are in them-selves, but also how they present themselves to us: how they differ from ordinary objects of perception, how they differ from dreams or fantasies, how they differ from words. We would also have to describe what it is we do when we take something as a picture: how picturing is different from perceiving, from remembering, from imagining. The correlation between object and subject is investigated. Yet when we examine this correlation, we do not turn the object into something merely subjective. We do not turn the picture into an illusion or a mere mental image. The picture is objective and not arbitrary; it has its own logic and structure of presentation. Pictures are “out there,” even though there would be no pictures if there were no subjects (or “datives”) for whom they were pictures.

One of the major themes in phenomenology is the recognition of the intentionality of consciousness: consciousness by its nature is said to be consciousness of something. At first glance, this claim seems to be a platitude, but it is a truism that we must be reminded of, because one of the central beliefs of modernity, one of our most common cultural assumptions, is that consciousness is primarily and almost exclusively self-awareness, that we are each locked into a private world and only get to the “real” world through the methods and devices of science. Writers like Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, and Nietzsche insist that we do not in fact experience a world in common; they claim that appearances are only private appearances, and that we must consider them, as well as our inherited traditions and common experience, with suspicion. The belief that each man is a world unto himself is at the root of the relativism of our society and its intellectual elites, and in striking at this presumption of modernity phenomenology is in a position to make an important contribution to contemporary culture.

Countering Modern Evasions

Phenomenology accepts appearances as truly manifesting things. Part of its philosophical work is to provide careful analyses of how various kinds of things—pictures, words, memories, cultural objects, animals, other persons, moral goods, even the sacred and the divine—present themselves to us, how they can be intended both in their direct presence and in their absence. Each kind of object has its distinctive manner of being present and being absent, and each has its distinctive blend of appearances when it directly presents itself. All such appearances and modes of presence and absence are to be brought out in a phenomenological analysis of the thing in question. There are also, of course, false appearances, and they too must be given their phenomenological description, since they too are phenomena; they appear to us precisely as false, in contrast with what is manifested as true. Thus, Husserl transcends modernity; he shows how perception and articulated thinking serve to disclose things, how they allow things to appear. In some of his works he uses a Cartesian idiom, but he effectively comes to terms with the Cartesian tradition and works his way out of its dilemmas.

Another major concern in phenomenology is the relationship between science and the world in which we live. Husserl coined the term Lebenswelt or “life world” to name the world given prior to the idealizations of the mathematical science of Galileo and Newton. Some forms of modernity see the scientific as being in conflict with the lived world: the world of science is presented as the only true world, and the world we experience is devalued into being merely the world of subjective, private, uncritical experience—what is sometimes condescendingly called “folk” science or psychology. In contrast, phenomenology tries to show how the scientific has roots in the prescientific, how it does not disqualify the ordinary but adds a different sort of exactness to it. Husserl has shown, for example, how the idealized forms of geometry are rooted in prescientific activities of measuring and moving toward limits. Science is an endeavor that calls for human responsibility and insight, not something that replaces the human condition. Providing a humane account of science is one of the most important cultural contributions of phenomenology, and while Husserl wrote especially about mathematics and physics, writers such as Alfred Schutz have attempted to interpret the social sciences according to the principles of phenomenology.

Phenomenology provides resources to avoid various forms of reductionism. By acknowledging that different sorts of things have different ways of manifesting themselves, phenomenology deters us from trying to reduce all forms of appearance to one kind. It keeps us from reducing, say, the living and the personal to the merely material. Another major contribution of Husserl’s earliest work was his critique of psychologism, the philosophical error that reduces logical laws, propositions, states of affairs, and even objects to mental occurrences, states, and habits. Still another was his argument against historicism, the reduction of truths to opinions held by certain social groups at certain times and not valid beyond those places and times. By showing how we perceive and articulate a common world, and by showing how truths transcend any particular time and place, phenomenology counters the skepticism ex-pressed in reductive materialism, psychologism, and historicism.

We should note, as well, the contribution phenomenology can make in regard to deconstructionism, a relatively new movement whose roots lie in Nietzsche. There was an early historical connection between deconstructionism and phenomenology, since Jacques Derrida’s first books were brief commentaries on Husserl, inaccurate but suggestive. Deconstruction can be seen as the contrary of the rationalism and scientism of the Enlightenment. It insists that reason and evidence are not total, that subtexts and evasions accompany every text and utterance. The weakness of the movement (and perhaps the cause of its popularity) is that it leaves us with only absence, evasion, and meaninglessness; it ricochets from rationalism to an opposite extreme. Phenomenology, in contrast, acknowledges the role of absence and vagueness, but it also recognizes that we do achieve identifications in different ways, that evidence is possible even within some ambiguity, and that we can de-scribe philosophically both the evidence and the obscurity proper to various kinds of things.

Enriching Ancient Traditions

Finally, I would suggest that phenomenology provides a welcome complement to the rather objectivist philosophy of the scholastics. Whether in its medieval period, in the writings of men like Saint Thomas Aquinas or Scotus, or in its early modern representatives like Suarez or John of Saint Thomas, or even in the figures of its twentieth-century revival, such as Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon, scholastic thought is primarily concerned with the being, substance, and definition of the things that it studies. Whereas a scholastic approach will try to analyze, say, substance and form, phenomenology would describe how the substantial presents itself to us in contrast with the accidental, or how the formal distinguishes itself from the material. Phenomenology would examine the manner of presentation of the things that scholastic philosophy tries to define. Phenomenology provides what we could call analytical descriptions, descriptions that are structural and not merely anecdotal; they do not just state how we happen to feel or think when, say, we take something as a picture or a word, or when we take someone as a speaker, but bring out how such things must appear because of what they are. These descriptions also show what achievements we must carry out to let them appear as themselves. Phenomenology provides a philosophical account of the first-person viewpoint; scholasticism looks primarily to the nature of things.

Indeed, one of the major themes in phenomenology has been its treatment of the being and manifestation of the human self, the human person. It has emphasized the corporeality of human existence, showing that the human body is not merely one thing among many in the world, but that our body is ineluctably prominent for each of us. Our body provides a moving center of disclosure for everything that is given to us, and it is both an object for us and yet a place in which our awareness and our responsibility hold sway. Phenomenology also discusses human temporality, showing how past and future are both absent and present in the life we live at any moment. Part of the definition of human existence is the anticipation of a future and the bearing of a past. Through such blends of intentionality and time we identify not only things and truths, but also our own selves, with the history of what we have done and what has been done to us.

Thus, phenomenology can add a subjective dimension to scholasticism without becoming subjectivist, and, because phenomenology explicitly considers the first-person viewpoint, its analyses have a more familiar and recognizable tone than do the more detached philosophical styles. I would also suggest that phenomenology gives a better account of the subject than does Transcendental Thomism, a twentieth-century adaptation of Saint Thomas’s thought developed by such writers as Joseph Marechal, Karl Rahner, and Bernard Lonergan. Transcendental Thomism is too strongly influenced by Kant and shares many of the presumptions of modernity.

The encyclical Veritatis splendor evinces a phenomenological style when it uses the questions of the rich young man, from chapter 19 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, to set the context for its teaching. This young man is taken as a representative of any and every human being. The encyclical does not simply present moral truth, but describes it in relation to the inquiring moral agent; it speaks about the correlation between object and subject, not about the object alone. Moral truth is disclosed to an agent and to a dative, who must be taken into account. But at the same time, this moral agent, the young man or every man, seeks the truth in question and asks for guidance from Christ and His Church; he does not want only a confirmation of the opinions he already has, nor does he wish to remain within his own feelings and impressions. He seeks the freedom that comes from objectivity and the splendor possessed by truth. A theology inspired by phenomenology reflects on this young man as a moral agent and as someone inquiring into the moral nature of things and into the words spoken by Christ. In doing so, such a theology would also reflect on the truth that is manifested to the young man. Such reflection, on the acting person and on moral truth, is what the Pope’s encyclical accomplishes.

Robert Sokolowski


Robert Sokolowski is the Elizabeth Breckenridge Caldwell Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.