What is Existential-Phenomenology?

What is Phenomenology?

"As good a place to begin as any is the meaning of the term phenomenology itself. It is derived from the two Greek words: phainomenon (an "appearance") and logos ("reason" or "word," hence a "reasoned inquiry"). Phenomenology is indeed a reasoned inquiry which discovers the inherent essences of appearances. But what is an appearance? The answer to this question leads to one of the major themes of phenomenology: an appearance is anything of which one is conscious. Anything at all which appears to consciousness is a legitimate area of philosophical investigation. Moreover, an appearance is a manifestation of the essence of that of which it is the appearance. Surprising as it may sound, other philosophic points of view have refused to make this move."
--David Stewart & Algis Mickunas, Exploring Phenomenology, p. 3

"...one can characterize phenomenological philosophy as centering on the following basic themes: a return to the traditional tasks of philosophy, the search for a philosophy without presuppositions, the intentionality of consciousness, and the refusal of the subject-object dichotomy."
--David Stewart & Algis Mickunas, Exploring Phenomenology, p. 5

"For Husserl, phenomenology was a discipline that attempts to describe what is given to us in experience without obscuring preconceptions or hypothetical speculations; his motto was 'to the things themselves'--rather than to the prefabricated conceptions we put in their place. As Husserl saw it, this attempt offered the only way out of the impasse into which philosophy had run at the end of the nineteenth century when the realists, who affirmed the independent existence of the object, and the idealists, who affirmed the priority of the subject, had settled down into a stalemated war. Instead of making intellectual speculations about the whole of reality, philosophy must turn, Husserl declared, to a pure description of what is. In taking this position Husserl became the most influential force not only upon Heidegger but upon the whole generation of German philosophers who came to maturity about the time of the First World War."
--William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, pp. 190-191

"...Husserl's logic is one bound to the immediacy of all experience itself insofar as phenomena are understood as givens in their immediate and irreducible presentative force. Most simply, Husserl is after the formal qualities of the concrete reality which human beings recognize as their experience, but from here means the essential immanent in the particular: the truth of the given. The history of Husserl's development as a philosopher supports the thesis that throughout his life he was, at various levels, searching for an architectonic of thought . . . which would express and uncover the specificity of the world. If the term 'logic' be understood in its philosophic sense as a grounding discipline for all reflection, then phenomenology as a logic treats the genesis and development of phenomena from their most primordial roots in prereflective consciousness to their most reflectively sophisticated exemplification in science."
--Maurice Natanson, "Phenomenology and the Social Sciences," In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, Volume 1, pp. 4-5

"Phenomenology is a science of 'beginnings.' The genuine beginner is an adept, not a novice. To begin, in this sense, is to start from the primordial grounds of evidence, from onself as the center (not the sum) of philosophical experience. Such self-centeredness is the opposite of philosophic hubris; it is a confession of humility: the admission that, unless the inquirer has turned to himself in full awareness of his life, he cannot claim to have sought, let alone found, the truth. . .

The genuine beginner is, then, the most sophisticated of all thinkers, for, beyond honoring the Socratic injunction, he is unwilling to admit as taken for granted that which impinges most heavily on his outlook as a man in the world: the root assumption that, though we may be ignorant of philosophic truth, we are, after all, beings in a real world in which philosophic doubt emerges as something worth bothering about."
--Maurice Natanson, "Phenomenology and the Social Sciences," In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, Volume 1, p. 6-8

". . .one learned what phenomenology is step by step, through reading, discussion, and reflection ... What is needed is rather simple: to learn what is mean by the natural attitude, to practice epoche, to attempt descriptions of presentations without prejudicing the results by taking for granted the history, causality, intersubjectivity, and value we ordinarily associate with our experience, and to examine with absolute care the fabric of the world of daily life so that we may grasp its source and its direction . . .

There is a legitimate sense in which it is necesary to say that one must become a phenomenologist in order to comprehend phenomenology."
--Maurice Natanson, "Phenomenology and the Social Sciences," In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, Volume 1, pp. p. 8

". . . at the end of his career, Husserl admitted that the first result of reflection is to bring us back into the presence of the world as wel lived it before our reflection began (Lebenswelt)."
--Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man," In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, Volume 1, p. 54

"During the whole career of Husserl . . . the struggle is on two fronts. On the one hand it is a struggle against psychologism and historicism, in so far as they reduce the life of man to a mere result of external conditions acting on him and see the philosophizing person as entirely determined from the outside, lacking any contact with his own thought and therefore destined to skepticism. But on the other hand, it is also a struggle against logicism, in so far as this is attempting to arrange for us an access to the truth lacking any contact with contingent experience. Husserl is seeking to reaffirm rationality at the level of experience, without sacrificing the vast variety that it includes and accepting all the processes of conditioning which psychology, sociology, and history reveal. It is a question of finding a method which will enable us to think at the same time of the externality which is the principle of the sciences of man and of the internality which is the condition of philosophy, of the contingencies without which there is no situation as well as of the rational certainty without which there is no knowledge."
--Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Phenomenology and the Sciences of Man," In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, Volume 1, p. 57

"The first step in phenomenological philosophy is reflection on the meaning or essence of the experience of consciousness. 'Phenomenological positivism' beings with the facts of experience and is followed by reflection, intuition, and description of the phenomena of consciousness. Husserl sought by the study of the phenomena of consciousness to find the roots of reason in our human experience. So understood, phenomenology as a philosophy is the science of the sciences, providing the principles which validate, a priori, all the sciences.

The concept of the 'intentionality of consciousness' is the foundation of phenomenological philosophy . . . Husserl adopted Brentano's notion of intentionality and refined it.

Husserl distinguished between the act of knowing (noesis) from the object (noema), whether existent or imaginary. To be conscious is to experience an act of knowing in which the subject is aware of an object. A conscious act is an act of awareness in which the subject is presented with an object.

Husserl distinguishes further between perception and intuition. One may perceive and be conscious of the fact that one perceives an object without understanding its essence, what it is, its principle of being and identity. Intuition of the essence of an object is the source of meaning and intelligibility of the particular phenomena. Eidetic intuition (Wessenschau) is insight into essences through the experiencing of exemplifying particulars. Such particulars may be given in either perception or imagination."
--David Bidney, "Phenomenological Method and the Anthropological Science of the Cultural Life-World," In M. Natanson (Ed.), Phenomenology and the Social Sciences, Volume 1, p. 57

"There are two fundamental moments in Husserl's phenomenological epoche which, although they are correlated, can be distinguished: 1) the reduction to the sphere of immanence, and 2) the movement from fact to essence. The first of these . . . requires suspension of the natural attitude and placing in abeyance all belief in the existence of the transcendent world. The second, sometimes call the eidetic reduction, requires a shift to consider things not as realities but as instances of idealities, as pure possibilities rather than actualities. For Husserl, this second reduction is necessary to fuflill the conditions for genuinely rigorous science. Thoser conditions, already announced by Descartes under the heaing of clarity and distinctness, already are apodicticity (that is, the certainty that requires absolute transparency) and univocity (that is, absence of ambiguity). When science is conceived this way, its objects are no longer worldly things, but rather essences: meanings, categories, ideal types, and laws. For Husserl, rigorous science operates exclusively within the sphere of ideality--and must do so in order to meet the standards of atemporality embodied in what he conceives as the very idea of science. Although it is not identified as such by Husserl, this is an ancient idea which is generally attributed to Parmenides: only that can be known which is, and that which genuinely is excludes coming into being and passing away. The objects of rigorous science must be atemporal essences whose atemporality is ensured by their ideality.

This Eleatic strain in Husserl's thought culminates in the standpoint that meaning (Sinn) in general is timeless and ideal. The ancient question of how atemporal meanings become instantiated in the flux of everyday actuality can be addressed by calling upon a central distinction in Husserl's theory of intentionality: the distinction between the act of intending (noesis) and the meaning-content (noema) of the object intended. The noetic act is real in the sense that it is a temporal even in which hyletic data (or "sensory contents") are synthesized and apprehended by consciousness as an intentional object. The noema, on the other hand, is ideal: it conveys the atemporal meaning which provides the form (morphe) according to which consciousness synthesizes its mattery or sensory data (hyle). Thus, every intentional act (noesis) is an actualization or realization of a timeless meaning."
--M. C. Dillon, Merleau-Ponty's Ontology, p. 71


Phenomenology, beginning with Edmund Husserl, urges that the world of immediate or "lived" experience takes precendence over the objectified and abstract world of the "natural attitude" of natural science. Science as such, thus, is secondary to the world of concrete, lived experience. Phenomenology, therefore, engages in a process known as "bracketing" in which the "natural attitude" is placed aside such that the researcher may begin with "the things themselves," as Husserl said — or, in other words, in the phenomena as they show themselves in experience. In Heidegger's terminology, phenomenology involves letting things "show themselves from themselves in the very way in which they show themselves from themselves." By definition, phenomenology never begins with a theory, but, instead, always begins anew with the phenomena under consideration. Maurice Merleau-Ponty's famous description of phenomenology is quite instructive; as he writes, the phenomenologist returns "to the world which precedes (scientific description), (the world) of which science always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific characterization is an abstract and derivative sign language, as is geography in relation to the countryside."

In Husserlian phenomenology, consciousness is understood as fundamentally intentional. In this sense, Husserl is, in part, indebted to Franz Brentano's "Act psychology," which held that all mental acts are characterized by "intentionality." Consciousness as an act, that is, is always positing a world; in other words, it is always "of" or "about" something. Following Brentano, Husserl holds that consciousness is never directed toward itself, but, rather, is always directed toward phenomena in the world. It follows, therefore, that any abstraction is ultimately based on phenomena in the world, and, thus, are secondary to the primary lived experience of phenomena as they "show themselves."

Husserl brings to this understanding something unique, his phenomenological method, which is characterized by Husserl's "epoche." As mentioned previously, "epoche" is a "bracketing" of the "natural attitude" so that one can attend to a phenomenon as it shows itself. Once the "natural attitude" is "bracketed," one can then attend to what, according to Husserl, are the two poles of experience, noema and noesis. Noesis is the act of perceiving, while noema is that which is perceived. Through this method, for Husserl, one can perform an "eidetic reduction." Noema can be reduced to their essential form or "essence." Husserl's phenomenology, in this sense, is a form of idealism, since it aims toward discovering the ideal form of phenomena, the essence or Eideia (such as with Plato and Hegel). Further, Husserl shares with the idealist a tendency to stress a priori conditions of knowledge (such as with Plato and Kant).

What is Existentialism?

"Existentialism is well known in this country both as a literary and philosophical movement, but its roots in phenomenology are not as widely understood. Historically, the roots of existential philosophy can be traced to the nineteenth-century writings of Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Central to the work of this figures was an emphasis on the existing individual, and a call for a consideration of man in his concrete situation, including his culture, history, relations with others, and above all, the meaning of personal existence."
--David Stewart & Algis Mickunas, Exploring Phenomenology, p. 63

"The very notion that existentialism is something that can be defined in a catch phrase, orthat one can merely know about it without understanding it from within, has made it, for some people, into an intellectual fad and robbed it of its proper seriousness. Yet existentialism is not merely a fad any more than it is a single, well-defined movement within philosophy. It is a powerful stream, welling up from underground sources, converging and diverging, but flowing forward and carrying with it many of the most important intellectual tendencies and literary and cultural manifestations of our day. . .

'Existentialism' is not a philosophy but a mood embracing a number of disparate philosophies; the differences among them are more basic than the temper which unites them. This temper can be described as a reaction against the static, the abstract, the purely rational, the merely irrational, in favor of the dynmaic and concrete, personal involvement and 'engagement,' action, choice and commitment, the distinction between 'authentic' and 'inauthentic' existence, and the actual situation of the existential subject as the starting point of thought. Beyond this the so-called existentialists divide according to their views on such matters as phenomenological analysis, the existential subject, the intersubjective relation between selves, religion, and the implications of existentialism for psychotherapy. . .

Insofar as one can define existentialism, it is a movement from the abstract and the general to the particular and the concrete. . .

The root of 'existentialism' is, of course, 'existence.' That might seem to include just about everything, and by the same token to say nothing, were it not for the traditions in the history of religion and the history of philosophy which have tended to look away from the 'passing flux' of existence to a realm of pure 'Being,' unchanging and eternal, a world of ideal essences or a formless absolute beyond these essences, in comparison with which the particulars of our earthly life are seen as merely phenomena--the shadows in Plato's cave which at best reflect in wavering and unsteady fashion, and more usually obscure, that essential reality which is not directly accessible to man through 'the life of the senses' . . .

Insofar as any philosopher has turned away from the tendency to locate the really real in a separate metaphysical sphere of essences in favor of the greater reality of personal existence in the here and now, he stands for an existentialist trend within the history of philosophy . . .

It is in [the] emphasis upon the existential subject that the crucial distinction is found between existentialm and the various brands of empiricism, positivism, and instrumentalism that also emphasize the particular, the concrete, and the here and now. For these latter the particular is still seen from without, from the standpoint of the detached observer, rather than from within, from the standpoint of lived life."
--Maurice Friedman, The Worlds of Existentialism: A Critical Reader, pp. 3-9


The origin of existentialism is typically attributed to the work of Kierkegaard. However, the precursory thinkers who influenced this school of thought are varied, including Pascal, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky, to name a few. One can just as well point back to the Greeks as influences, since Heidegger emphasized a return to the central themes in philosophy — questions pertaining to Being (the ontological) as opposed to beings (the ontic). Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that Kierkegaard is the "father" of existentialism.

Kierkegaard was a critic of the Christian churches of his day, which he felt had contributed to a forgetfulness of "existence." By "existence," Kierkegaard meant the particular form of human existence which is unique. Each "individual" human being is cast into the world unfinished and finite, yet, nevertheless, must take responsibility for his or her choices. Responsibility as such is the result of the "individual's" free choice, yet, characteristic of human beings, these choices are always made in the face of the unknown, our finititude, and, therefore, they lead to "dread." "Dread," in this sense, is the recognition that one's choices our one's own, despite the fact that one can never know for certain whether these choices will bear out in the end. Kierkegaard held great contempt for those who relied on the "crowd" to take responsibility for individual choice. For Kierkegaard, one must answer to God as an individual, naked and apart from the "crowd." Thus, ultimately, our faith must involve a "leap," since the human being is precluded from finality and certitude.

Existentialism, as such, is actually a 20th century movement, despite its roots in Kierkegaard and others. While Kierkegaard philosophized existentially, which influenced the existentialists of the 20th century, he did not hold to the existential axiom that "existence precedes essence," as Sartre asserted. With all of the existentialist thinkers of the 20th century, there are common themes, despite great diversity. Whether one looks to Heidegger, Sartre, Buber, Merleau-Ponty, or De Beauvoir, to name a few, one finds a basic attitude, despite the major differences among these thinkers. These commonalites, which bind these theorists together, can be flushed out — and this, in essence, is what one may call "existentialism." There is some justifiable irony in the fact that most of these thinkers rejected the term "existentialism." This tendency to reject any simple definition is descriptive of existentialism as a whole, since existentialism, as a movement, resists simplistic categories and abstraction. For the existentialist, ‘truth' is found "in-the-world" and, thereby, always begins with the concrete; that is, in existence. And grounded in existence as such, this means that one's thought must necessarily be perspectival and limited. Despite these limitations, the common themes of existentialism include:

1. The human being is a "being-in-the-world." That is, the human kind of being is always already involved in meaningful projects with others and alongside things. As Heidegger would say, the human being is "there being" (Dasein) -- meaning that the human being exists as the projection of possibilities which open up as a world. In this sense, the human being is not "in the world" like a match is in a matchbox. Rather, the human being is "in-the-world" in the sense that one is ‘in trouble' or ‘in a relationship.'

2. As "being-in-the world," the human being is "thrown" into that "world" such that she finds herself in the midst of the ‘givens' of existence. One does not choose one's parents, the place of one's birth or the fact that one will die, yet, despite these circumstances, the human being is faced with the freedom to respond to these ‘givens' of existence. In this sense, human beings can be said to be ‘response-able.'

3. As "being-in-the-world," the human being is always "with others." Even being alone can be said to be a mode of being-with-others, since one cannot be alone unless this is first understood secondarily as a being-away-from-others. Moreover, our being-with-others is always as a relationship of some sort, and, being so, we are both shaped by others and shape those others with whom we relate.

4. Human beings are always "in-the-world" alongside things. Things, in terms of existence, are not mere extension in space. Rather, things exist as meaningful entities which, in one form or another, call to the human being as significant in terms of the human being's projection of possibilities. A thing is a thing when it matters to me in one form or another — when, as a thing, it enters into the clearing by which I am either helped or hindered on my way toward realizing my projects "in-the-world."

5. Human beings are not things. A thing does not exist as a "being-in-the-world," since, as a thing, it has no world. For a thing, nothing matters. Things can only matter for a human being, since it is only in the world of the human being that things can have meaning. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to treat human beings as ‘things,' such as with biology. To provide an example: A corpse is a thing. A dead person is not a thing, but rather a human being who no longer lives. One can treat a corpse like a thing, but not a dead person. This is clear in terms of our relating to others. When I am with another human being, I fully recongize that I exist as an other to the other person. However, with a thing, say a rock, I do not exist for it — for I fully recognize that the rock does not exist in the sense that a human being exists. The rock is not "in-the-world."

6. Human beings are finite. As a "being-in-the-world," we recognize that death is a "not-to-be-outstripped" (inevitable) possibility. Death as such is the possibility of the end of all possibilities. Existence, therefore, is not limitless, but inevitably must face up to the mystery of the "nothingness," that which lies beyond what can be known as a "being-in-the-world." As a "being-towards-death," as Heidegger would say, the human being becomes aware that she cannot have all the possibilities. Faced with the recognition of one's finitude, one also recognizes that one is always faced with choices. In making a choice, I simultaneously eliminate thousands of other possible choices. And, yet, making such a choice, I can never know with absolute certainty that I have made the ‘right' choice. With this freedom to choose, I am faced with the responsibility for my own existence.

7. Faced with such freedom, responsibility and finitude, I am confronted with anxiety and guilt. I am anxious in the face of the fact that my choice may render a death to my world. Further, in recognition that with my choice I eliminate other choices, I am ‘guilty.'

8. Immediate experience has priority over theoretical assumptions.

9. All experience is both physical and mental: How this is so varies greatly from thinker to thinker.

What is Existential-Phenomenology?

"Failure to see [the] intimate connection between phenomenology and existentialism will result in thinking of existentialism as only a subjective reaction against systematic thinnking and not as a philosophic movmenet with its own set of problems and methods."
--David Stewart & Algis Mickunas, Exploring Phenomenology, p. 63

"Whereas Husserl saw the task of transcendental phenomenology to be that o describing the lived world from the viewpoint of a detached observer, existential phenomenology insists that the observer cannot separate himself from the world. Existential phenomenologists followed out more rigorously the implications of the doctrine of intentionality of consciousness. Since consciousness is always consciousness of . . ., the world is not only the correlate of consciousness but that without which there would be no consciousness. Consequently, for existential phenomenology, the modalities of conscious experience are also the ways one is in the world. This shift of the notion of the Lebenswelt (lived-world) to the emphasis upon being-in-the-world expanded phenomenology in a way that allowed it to consider the totality of human relationships in the world in terms of the individual's concrete existence.

The very terminology itself, being-in-the-world, is existentialism's attempt to avoid reference to human reality in terms either of a thinking substance or a perceiving subject closed in upon itself facing physical objects which may or may not be knowable. Being-in-the-world refers exclusively to human reality in contrast to nonhuman reality, and although the specific terminology has varied among existentialists, common to all is the insistence that human reality is situated in a concrete world-context. In short, man is only man as a result of his actions which are worked out in the world. But there is still the reciprocal relationship that phenomenology insists on: The total ensemble of human actions--including thoughts, moods, efforts, emotions, and so forth--define the context in which man situates himself. But, in turn, the world-context defines and sets limits to human action.

Also central to an understanding of being-in-the-world is the existentialist insistence that this is not a concept that arises only in reflection. Even prior to reflection upon one's awareness of being-in-the-world there is already a prereflective grasp of the basic modalities which are his ways of being-in-the-world. In prereflective experience, the subject and world are not distinct; they are rather the givens of concrete experience which can only be separated by a process of abstraction. Any reflection--whether theoretical or practical--already assumes man's prereflective experience of the world and his activity in the world. The word existence is usually used by existentialists to refer only to human reality, for what it means to exist is to be always engaged in tasks in the world."
--David Stewart & Algis Mickunas, Exploring Phenomenology, pp. 64-65

"Soren Kierkegaard is the founder of existentialism, but one could hardly call him a phenomenologist. Husserl launched phenomenology, but was not an existentialist. Thus there was a time when a distinction needed to be made between existentialism and phenomenology. Today, however, we also speak of existential phenomenology or phenomenological existentialism. So the question may be asked: what is the difference between existentialism and phenomenology, and how did the unified movement of existential-phenomenological thinking arise?

Let us point out first of all that there exists a certain harmony between Husserl and Kierkegaard. It manifests itself in their common resistance to the atomistic way of looking at man and things human. Man is not more or less like an atom. The way in which Kierkegaard and Husserl resisted that view differs: Kierkegaard speaks of man, while Husserl practically limits himself to consciousness or knowledge. Kierkegaard conceived man as 'existence,' as a subject-in-relationship-to-God. Man is not a self-sufficient spiritual 'atom' but, as a subject, is only authentically himself in his relationship to the God of revelation. According to Kierkegaard, 'existence' is absolutely original and irrepeatable, radically personal and unique. His emphasis on the uniqueness of 'existence' implies that a thinker's assertions are applicable only to the thinker himself: in principle, they do not claim validity for others. Thus, Kierkegaard's position is deliberately anti-'scientific': it cannot do justice to the dimension of universality claimed by any 'science' (we do not use the term here in the sense of positive science). As a matter of principle, Kierkegaard's way of thinkiing cannot go beyond monologue, the 'solitary meditation.'

Kierkegaard's followers resolutely countered the reproach of being 'unscientific' by saying that existentialism may not be a 'science.' Their objection to being called 'scientific' appeared to be largely based on a particular sense of the term 'scientific' as used with respect to man. In scientism and in the philosophy of Hegel--man was 'scientifically' discussed in such a way that the original and unique character of human subjectivity simply disappeared under verbiage. Yet this kind of speaking was supposed to be 'scientific' par excellence. The need to reject a particular conception of 'scientific' thinking, however, does not entitle anyone to claim that philosophical thinking about man must not be 'scientific' in any sense whatsoever. The philosopher can hardly avoid the use of universal and necessary judgments to indicate the universal and necessary structures of man. In this sense he is 'scientific.'

This difficulty hardly existed for Husserl. Originally a mathematician and physicist, Husserl, like Descartes, was disturbed ty the confusion of language and the welter of opinions existing in philosophy. Clearly, philosophy was 'not yet a science,' and this made Husserl launch his phenomenology as an attempt to make philosophy also a 'rigorous science.' He was clever enough to avoid the trap of ascribing to philosophy the same scientific character as belongs to the positive sciences. Philosophy cannot allow physics or any other positive science to dictate its methods, for the simple reason that philosophy is not a positive science. It has to become scientific in its own way in its expression of intersubjective and objectively general truth.

To realize this ambitious plan, Husserl investigated man's consciousness or knowledge. He conceived consciousness as intentional, oriented to something other than itself. Whereas Husserl addressed himself to problems in the theory of knowledge, Kierkegaard tried to answer theological-anthropological questions. The distinction between existentialism and phenomenology consisted primarily in the different directions of their concern.

The two streams of thought merged in Heidegger's Being and Time, where they served as the foundation of the philosophy now known as 'existential phenomenology.' Heidegger's philosophy of man does not lapse into the illusions of either idealism or positivism. Influenced by the phenomenological theory of knowledge, existentialism gave up its anti-scientific attitude. Phenomenology, on the other hand, enriched itself and developed into a philosophy of man by borrowing many topics from Kierkegaard's existentialism. In this way there arose the unified movement of existential-phenomenological thinking of which Heidegger, Sartre--though not in every respect--Merleau-Ponty and the Higher Institute of Philosophy of Louvain are the principal exponents."
--William A. Luijpen & Henry J. Koren, A First Introduction to Existential Phenomenology, pp. 18-21

"Heidegger accepts Husserl's definition of phenomenology: he will attempt to describe, he says, without any obscuring preconceptions, what human existence is. But his imagination could not let the matter go at this, for he noted that the world 'phenomenon' comes from the Greek. The etymologies of words, particularly of Greek words, are a passion with Heidegger; in his pursuit of them he has been accused of playing with words, but when one realizes what deposits of truth mankind has let slip into its language as it evolves, Heidegger's perpetual digging at words to get at their hidden nuggets of meaning is one of his most exciting facets. In the matter of Greek particularly--a dead language, whose whole history is now spread out before us--we can see how certain truths are embedded in the language itself: truths that the Greek race later came to forget in its thinking. The world "phenomenon"--a word in ordinary usage, by this time, in all modern European languages--means in Greek 'that which reveals itself.' Phenomenology therefore means for Heidegger the attempt to let the thing speak for itself. It will reveal itself to us, he says, only if we do not attempt to coerce it into one of our read-made conceptual strait-jackets. Here we get the beginning of his rejoinder to the Nietzscean view that knowledge is in the end an expression of the Will to Power: according to Heidegger we do not know the object by conquering and subduing it but rather by letting it be what it is and, in letting it be, allowing it to reveal itself as what it is. And our own human existence too, in its most immediate, internal nuances, will reveal itself if we have ears to hear it."
--William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, pp. 191-192


In ways that, perhaps, are already clear to the reader, existentialism and phenomenology lend themselves to one another quite nicely. With Heidegger, phenomenology, as the study of mental acts (noesis) and their intentional correlates (noemata), becomes grounded in his ontological analysis of Dasein (the human kind of being) as a "being-in-the-world." Ultimately, Heidegger breaks from the Cartesian, subject-object split, still operative in Husserl's thought; as Macann (1993) writes:

"In place of the Husserlian procedure which moves from the world of the natural attitude up to a higher, transcendental plane with a view to bring to light the transcendental structures constitutive of the objectivity of the entities encountered in the natural attitude, we find an alternative procedure which moves from the ontic level down to a deeper, ontological plane with a view to bringing to light the ontological structures constitutive of the being of the entities in question." (From Macann's (1993) Four Phenomenological Philosophers, p. 63).

Heidegger, like Husserl, begins with the human being's pre-reflective, pre-ontological, lived understanding of the world, but, rather than seeking the essence of the phenomona, like Husserl, Heidegger is concerned with the ontological ground of the phenomena; that is, what makes the phenomena possible. With this methodology, Heidegger aims to ask the question of Being, the ontological, though he must begin with beings, the ontic. Heidegger's method, therefore, is hermeneutic rather than transcendental. He holds that the human being always already understand the meaning of Being, yet this has been forgotten or "covered over." Beginning with the pre-ontological, Heidegger aims to discover what the human being already knows pre- reflectively, yet which must be made explicit through the method of phenomenology.

What is the relationship between hermeneutics and existential-phenomenology?

"Hermeneutics [is] the art or theory of interpretation, as well as a type of philosophy that starts with questions or interpretation. Originally concerned more narrowly with interpreting sacred texts, the term acquired a much broader significance in its historical development and finally beame a philosophical position in 20th century German philosophy. There are two competing positions in hermeneutics: whereas the first follows Wilhelm Dilthey and sees interpretation or Verstehen as a method for the historical and human sciences, the second follows Heidegger and sees it as an 'ontological event,' an interaction between interpreter and text that is part of the history of what is understood. Providing rules or criteria for understanding what an author or native 'really' meant is the typical problem for the first approiach. The interpretation of the law provides an example for the second view, since the process of applying the law inevitably transforms it."
--Robert Audi (Ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 323

Methodological hermeneutics:

Methodological hermeneutics refers to hermeneutics as a human science, originating in the work of Schleiermacher and Dilthey.

"Schleiermacher's analysis of understand and expression related to texts and speech marks the beginning of hermeneutics in the modern sense of a scientific methodology. This emphasis on methodology continues in 19th century historicism and culminates in Dilthey's attempt to ground the human sciences in a theory of interpretation, understood as the imaginative but publicly verifiable reenactment of the subjective experiences of others. Such a method of interpretation reveals the possibility of an objective knowledge of human beings not accessible to empiricst inquiry and thus of a distinct methodology for the human sciences. One result of the analysis of interpretation in the 19th century was the recognition of "the hermeneutic circle," first developed by Schleiermacher. The circularity of interpretation concerns the relation of parts to the whole: the interpretation of each part is dependent on the interpretation of the whole. But interpretation is circular in a stronger sense: if every interpretation is itself based on interpretation, then the circle of interpretation, even if it is not vicious, cannot be escaped."
--Robert Audi (Ed.), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, pp. 323-324

Ontological hermeneutics:

Ontological hermeneutics finds its expression in the existential-phenomenological work of Martin Heidegger, and is elaborated on by his student Hans-Georg Gadamer.

"In Being and Time, Heidegger attacked Dilthey's view that hermeneutics is one among a variety of methods. In Heidegger's philosophy hermeneutics is constitutive of human being (Dasien). 'The phenomenology of Dasein is hermeneutic in the primordial significatiuon of this word" (Heidegger, 1962, p. 62). Or as Charles Guignon (1983) has put it:

In our everyday lives we grasp entitites in terms of a tacit understanding of what it is to be, and we are constantly driven to make    that understanding explicit and revise it on the basis of passing encounters and collisions. The hermeneutic approach to fundamental ontology, far from being a technique for uncovering meanings in an alient text, is just a more rigorous and explicit version of the kind of movmenet toward clarity and depth which makes up life itself. (p. 71)

. . . In the course of the existential analytic of Dasein, Heidegger (1962) advanced the thesis that scientific activity takes place within a context of preunderstanding that derives from a certain situatedness in the life-world and from participation in various activities that include practical dealings with tools and implements. Such practical dealings and understandings are achieved in the course of various customary, everyday transactions with the environment. These occur within a taken-for-granted cultural and historical background that consists of practices, habits, and skills, but cannot be spelled out explicitly and comprehended because it is so pervasive that we cannot make it an object of inquiry. This is the lived-world of what Heidegger called 'Everydayness.'

Heidegger argued that the fundamental mode of human existence--that on the basis of which all other modes must be understood--is not detached knowing but rather, engaged activity. In his view other modes of experience, like the disinterested contemplation of the scientist or the phenomenologist, are preceded, both temporally and logically, by everyday situations of involvement with the world. Thus, for Heidegger everydayness is not just a possible mode of existence; it is a primordial foundation from which other modes derive. And, according to him, a careful, unprejudiced investigation of a typical everyday situation of activity shows the untenability of certain philosophical assumptions that have pervaded Western philosophy at least since the time of Descartes, and have persisted, albiet in disguised form, in the transcendental (as opposed to hermeneutic) phenomenology of the philosopher Husserl. One of Heidegger's standard illustrations of everydayness is the situation of a carpenter hammering a nail.

For Heidegger, the paradigmatic object in the human world is something like the carpenter's hammer--that is, not a mere physical thing or a sensation or an idea contemplated from a position of scientific or philosophical detachment (as the empiricist philosophers would have it), but a tool that is used. Such a tool seems to occupy a kind of middle realm that defies the traditional Cartesian and Platonic polarities. That is, it cannot be equated with either the 'subject' or the 'object' of Cartesian philosophy, nor with the 'quality' or 'substance' of Platonic philosophy. Such objects of equipment are termed by Heidegger ready-to-hand. An entirely different ontology is involved here. An object of equipment that is ready-to-hand is the locus of both subject and object, self and world, quality and substance. Thus, a hammer is not a 'hammer' by virtue of its place in the human world. Nor is its quality of 'hammerness' something that comes from some subjective inner space and gets 'projected' onto a material or sensory substrate. Thus, in Heidegger's account both the subject-object distinction and the distinction between quality (or meaning) and substance (be it material or sensory) turns out to be misleading. In the lifeworld of engaged human activity, according to Heidegger, the hammer's 'hammerness' is experienced as out there in the world, inseparable from the substance it imbues, and the external world is 'always already' imbued with human purpose and meaning. The ready-to-hand mode is contrasted with another form that Heidegger called present-at-hand. An object that is present-at-hand is not in a unified, integrated, field-like relation with a subject, but rather corresponds to the isolated perceptual object that is studied by a detached, uninvolved observer.

Just as the unity of subject and object is crucial to readiness-to-hand, so too is the quality of complete interrelatedness. Heidegger emphasizes that a particular item of equipment can never be understood in isolation from other objects that are ready-to-hand, since it only exists as such in a purpose-imbued context of other equipment and their respective uses. Thus, Heidegger emphasizes that the objects in one's world are not separate entities but constituents of a unified field, a field that is itself constituted by the essential unity of subject and object: A hammer is what it is because it fills a slot in the 'equipmental context' of the human lifeworld.

In Heidegger's view, then, human being [Dasein] involves what might be called an implicitly sensed 'ground,' 'horizon,' or 'clearing,' which is the context or totality within which experience occurs. This horizon, which undercuts the Cartesian opposition of subject and object, is in a sense the most important aspect of human existence, for it is the very condition or possibility of anything at all appearing or being known. Moreover, it is the only place where the being of either 'man' or 'world' is disclosed.

The Heideggerian view of human existence is, at its deepest level, opposite to that of the early Dilthey, who took for granted the essential self-transparency or intelligibility of consciousness. In the Heideggerian view, the conscious experience of another person or culture cannot be ascertained in any objective sense. The horizonal character of Dasein makes it impossible to retain faith in the transparency and certitude of phenomenological description. Dasien can known its own being only in an approximate, tentative, and indirect way--not by taking its own ordinary self-understanding at face value, nor through some quasi-scientific method of direct intuition with access to certain and foundational data. For on this view experinece is a kind of text-analogue that needs to be interpreted (hence, Heidegger's is a hermeneutic phenomenology), an intrinsically obscure object with which one must adopt an approximate and metaphoric, rather than quasi-scientific mode of description."
--Robert L. Woolfolk, Louis A. Sass, & Stanley B. Messer, "Introduction to Hermeneutics," In Messer, Sass & Woolfolk (Eds.), Hermeneutics and Psychological Theory, pp. 12-18

What is the relationship between ontology and existential-phenomenology?

In his 1941 lecture, Grundbegriffe (Basic Concepts), Heidegger discusses the "ontological difference" that is central to his thought.
Here it is summarized by Ernesto Grassi:

"Heidegger explains the essential difference between Being (Sein) and beings (Seiendes). This is what is referred to as the 'ontological difference.' He demonstrates this essential difference by pointing out the impossibility of speaking about Being (Sein) in the form of a being (Seiendes) (in the sense of some object). Every attempt to define Being in this way leads to contradictions.

An initial definition of Being, Heidegger observes, must maintain that Being is that which is most 'empty' since it is predicated of all beings and, hence, is what is most common to all things. The Being of each being is asserted with the verb 'is.' We say of a stone that it 'is,' of an animal, of a house, and of an attitude that it 'is.' Only by virtue of such an 'emptiness' is it possible for us to find Being in everything there is. Being does without any particular distinction in order to appear within every being. In contrdiction to this initial definition of Being as empty and common to everything, we are also forced to recognize that Being can be defined in the opposite way, that is, as 'singular and one.' For we are concerned only with the 'Being' of all the many different things that are. Each such thing is to be understood in terms of 'Being.' Hence, instead of characterizing Being as common the way we did before, Being is also the opposite of this, namely singular, because Being is everywhere, among beings, 'the same.'

A second definition of Being, according to Heidegger, purports that Being is 'what is most understandable' of all to us because it is only upon the basis of Being that beings can be conceived of or spoken about at all. Wherever and whenever beings are experienced, we also take account of Being because Being is connected with our understanding of beings everywhere and at every moment. In this way Being proves to be what is most readily understood. But here too we are faced with a contradiction because we must confront this definition with the fact that Being is also waht is 'most hidden or concealed' (das Verborgenste). Every attempt to say what Being is forces us to define it as a being among other beings which means that we necesarily fail to say what is is as Being. Being remains hidden as Being and this 'staying hidden' belongs to Being itself.

Heidegger's third definition of Being is directed to the insight that Being is what can be 'most relied upon' (das Verlaeslichte). For how are we even to doubt particular beings in any way, if it is not already certain that we can rely on what it means to be? We refer most frequently to Being since it is named in every noun, adjective, and verb. This expression of what is, is not an expression of an agreement (Zu-sage) to each particular situation, but rather something that 'must already be given before' (Vorgabe) because it is only by virtue of this expression that it is possible to name beings.

This definition of Being is also connected to the opposite insight that Being is what is most abysmal (das Abruendigste) and as such is 'waht is least of all reliable' (das Unverlaesslkichtste). Every attempt to define Being--and so to logically fixate it--fails. Being, therefore, does not stand firmly as something upon which we can build. Moreover, Being is what is 'most silent' (das Verschwiegenste). Every assertion about Being goes astray becuase, by the very process of assertaion, Being is relegated to the status of 'a being.' This going astray is unavoidable. On the other hand, Being is what is 'most often expressed' in language since, in every assertion about beings, Being is also spoken about. It is therefore the wod that breaks the silence.

According to Heidegger's fifth definition of Being, it is what has been 'most of all forgotten,' because the questions that man has raised are directed to beings and not to Being, that is, they are directed to nature, man, and all of those things that affect us directly and urge themselves upon us. But even this definition is contradicted insofar as Being is actually that which is 'most of all remembered.' For if Being were completely eradicated from our recollection, then beings could neither be met with nor asserted as Being. That urgent necessity that we meet with in the experience of things is rooted in the claim that Beings make upon us (in language: Anspruch des Seins).

Finally, Being turns out to be involved in one last contradiction, for it proves to be simultaneously 'what is most necessitating' (Noetigendste) as well as what is 'most liberating' (Befreiendste); it is only by virtue of the claim of Being (Anspruch) that the Being of beings is revealed. Since the subject and object are both beings, they therefore confront each other only through the liberation of Being, that is, through the freedom of Being. More specifically, man comes to himself as a subject in relationship to an object through the liberating action of Being."
--Ernesto Grassi, Heidegger and Renaissance Humanism, pp. 31-35

What is the difference between Heidegger's "ontological difference" and negative theology?

"The essential different between Heidegger's philosophy of unhiddenness and negative theology as found in Dionysius and John of the Cross consists in tehir completely different starting points. They understand divine Being as a Being in and for itself, outside of history, so that it emerges primarily through the theophany of a mystic. Heidegger, however, claims that Being emerges through the 'clearing' of different, purely historical spaces in which particular gods, institutions, and arts appear historically. For negative theology, as well as for Heidegger, Being (God) is 'sublime,' but in a fundamentally different sense. In negative theology the sublime and elevated nature of God is defined in the sense that it finally can be made visible only by relinquishing those capacities (rational knowledge, memory and will) that make possible the 'day' of rational life.

For Heidegger, too, Being is not exhausted by beings and so Being is sublime and elevated in this sense for him. It remains hidden in its essence in its revelation of beings. But for Heidegger the rational process of thought remains necessary in the sphere of beings--where Being reveals itself--insofar as this process 'fixes' the order of beings. The giving of grounds establishes and defines beings as the particular things found here and now that announce Being. Beings belong to the revelation of Being and must be 'held to' in their particular historical form, but always in the sign of the 'opening' of Being. Only by remembering Being is the way to the 'new' open, the way to hope.

Our success or failure to hold ourselves open to the new gives us the possibilities for beginning or ending historical process. 'When the unhiddenness of Being does not present itself, it dismisses the slow disappearance of all that can offer healing to beings. This disappearance of what heals takes with it the openness of the holy. The closed nature of the holy darkens the luminescence of the divine' (Heidegger, Nietzsche, pt. 1, p. 394)."
--Ernesto Grassi, Heidegger and Renaissance Humanism, pp. 90-91

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