The term “Phenomenology”, as it is used by Husserl and his disciples, designates first of all a principle of philosophical and scientific method.

Phenomenology derives from Greek words “phainómenon" (that which appears) and “lógos” (study}. Phenomena are objects (things and events) we are conscious of. Phenomenology is thus the study of phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness through experience.

Phenomenology is the study of experience and the ways in which things and events present themselves in and through experience, specifically, the study of the structures of experience and consciousness.
Phenomenology attempts to describe the essential features or structures of a given experience or any experience in general.

Phenomenology, in Husserl's conception, is primarily concerned with the systematic reflection on and study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness. This ontology (study of reality) can be clearly differentiated from the Cartesian method of analysis which sees the world as objects, sets of objects, and objects acting and reacting upon one another.

Phenomenology is the attempt to explain the possibility of all knowledge, including philosophy, by describing the content and structure of consciousness.

Phenomenology is a philosophy or method of inquiry based on the premise that reality consists of objects and events as they are perceived or understood in human consciousness and not of anything independent of human consciousness. (

Phenomenology is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view.

The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions.

Phenomenology has been practiced in various guises for centuries, but it came into its own in the early 20th century in the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others.


What is Phenomenology

Phenomenology is commonly understood in either of two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy, or as a movement in the history of philosophy. The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view. This field of philosophy is then to be distinguished from, and related to, the other main fields of philosophy: ontology (the study of being or what is), epistemology (the study of knowledge), logic (the study of valid reasoning), ethics (the study of right and wrong action), etc.

The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al. In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy.
The methods and characterization of the discipline were widely debated by Husserl and his successors, and these debates continue to the present day. (The definition of phenomenology offered above will thus be debatable, for example, by Heideggerians, but it remains the starting point in characterizing the discipline.)

In recent philosophy of mind, the term “phenomenology” is often restricted to the characterization of sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, etc.: what it is like to have sensations of various kinds. However, our experience is normally much richer in content than mere sensation. Accordingly, in the phenomenological tradition, phenomenology is given a much wider range, addressing the meaning things have in our experience, notably, the significance of objects, events, tools, the flow of time, the self, and others, as these things arise and are experienced in our “life-world”.

Phenomenology as a discipline has been central to the tradition of continental European philosophy throughout the 20th century, while philosophy of mind has evolved in the Austro-Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy that developed throughout the 20th century. Yet the fundamental character of our mental activity is pursued in overlapping ways within these two traditions.

Basically, phenomenology studies the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity.
The structure of these forms of experience typically involves what Husserl called “intentionality”, that is, the directedness of experience toward things in the world, the property of consciousness that it is a consciousness of or about something.

The basic intentional structure of consciousness, we find in reflection or analysis, involves further forms of experience. Thus, phenomenology develops a complex account of temporal awareness (within the stream of consciousness), spatial awareness (notably in perception), attention (distinguishing focal and marginal or “horizonal” awareness), awareness of one's own experience (self-consciousness, in one sense), self-awareness (awareness-of-oneself), the self in different roles (as thinking, acting, etc.), embodied action (including kinesthetic awareness of one's movement), purpose or intention in action (more or less explicit), awareness of other persons (in empathy, intersubjectivity, collectivity), linguistic activity (involving meaning, communication, understanding others), social interaction (including collective action), and everyday activity in our surrounding life-world (in a particular culture).

Furthermore, in a different dimension, we find various grounds or enabling conditions — conditions of the possibility — of intentionality, including embodiment, bodily skills, cultural context, language and other social practices, social background, and contextual aspects of intentional activities. Thus, phenomenology leads from conscious experience into conditions that help to give experience its intentionality.
Traditional phenomenology has focused on subjective, practical, and social conditions of experience. Recent philosophy of mind, however, has focused especially on the neural substrate of experience, on how conscious experience and mental representation or intentionality are grounded in brain activity. It remains a difficult question how much of these grounds of experience fall within the province of phenomenology as a discipline. Cultural conditions thus seem closer to our experience and to our familiar self-understanding than do the electrochemical workings of our brain, much less our dependence on quantum-mechanical states of physical systems to which we may belong. The cautious thing to say is that phenomenology leads in some ways into at least some background conditions of our experience.


Internet Phenomenology utilizes a distinctive method to study the structural features of experience and of things as experienced. It is primarily a descriptive discipline and is undertaken in a way that is largely independent of scientific, including causal, explanations and accounts of the nature of experience. Topics discussed within the phenomenological tradition include the nature of intentionality, perception, time-consciousness, self-consciousness, awareness of the body and consciousness of others. Phenomenology is to be distinguished from phenomenalism, a position in epistemology which implies that all statements about physical objects are synonymous with statements about persons having certain sensations or sense-data. George Berkeley was a phenomenalist but not a phenomenologist.

Although elements of the twentieth century phenomenological movement can be found in earlier philosophers—such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant and Franz Brentano—phenomenology as a philosophical movement really began with the work of Edmund Husserl. Following Husserl, phenomenology was adapted, broadened and extended by, amongst others, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. Phenomenology has, at one time or another, been aligned with Kantian and post-Kantian transcendental philosophy, existentialism and the philosophy of mind and psychology.

The work often considered to constitute the birth of phenomenology is Husserl's Logical Investigations (Husserl 2001). It contains Husserl's celebrated attack on psychologism, the view that logic can be reduced to psychology; an account of phenomenology as the descriptive study of the structural features of the varieties of experience; and a number of concrete phenomenological analyses, including those of meaning, part-whole relations and intentionality.

Logical Investigations seemed to pursue its agenda against a backdrop of metaphysical realism. In Ideas I (Husserl 1982), however, Husserl presented phenomenology as a form of transcendental idealism. This apparent move was greeted with hostility from some early admirers of Logical Investigations, such as Adolph Reinach. However, Husserl later claimed that he had always intended to be a transcendental idealist. In Ideas I Husserl offered a more nuanced account of the intentionality of consciousness, of the distinction between fact and essence and of the phenomenological as opposed to the natural attitude.

Heidegger was an assistant to Husserl who took phenomenology in a rather new direction. He married Husserl's concern for legitimating concepts through phenomenological description with an overriding interest in the question of the meaning of being, referring to his own phenomenological investigations as "fundamental ontology." His Being and Time (Heidegger 1962) is one of the most influential texts on the development of European philosophy in the Twentieth Century. Relations between Husserl and Heidegger became strained, partly due to the divisive issue of National Socialism, but also due to significant philosophical differences. Thus, unlike his early works, Heidegger's later philosophy bears little relation to classical Husserlian phenomenology.

Although he published relatively little in his lifetime, Husserl was a prolific writer leaving a large number of manuscripts. Alongside Heidegger's interpretation of phenomenology, this unpublished work had a decisive influence on the development of French existentialist phenomenology. Taking its lead from Heidegger's account of authentic existence, Sartre's Being and Nothingness (Sartre 1969) developed a phenomenological account of consciousness, freedom and concrete human relations that perhaps defines the term "existentialism." Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (Merleau-Ponty 1962) is distinctive both in the central role it accords to the body and in the attention paid to the relations between phenomenology and empirical psychology.

Although none of the philosophers mentioned above can be thought of straightforwardly as classical Husserlian phenomenologists, in each case Husserl sets the phenomenological agenda. This remains the case, with a great deal of the contemporary interest in both phenomenological methodology and phenomenological topics drawing inspiration from Husserl's work.



Image source: Wikimedia  

Existentialism is the work associated mainly with certain late-19th- and 20th-century European philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. While the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity. In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.

Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or "authentically". Existentialism became popular in the years following World War II, and strongly influenced many disciplines besides philosophy, including theology, drama, art, literature, and psychology.

Existentialism is a movement in philosophy and literature that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It began in the mid-to-late 19th Century, but reached its peak in mid-20th Century France. It is based on the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence.

Thus, Existentialism believes that individuals are entirely free and must take personal responsibility for themselves (although with this responsibility comes angst, a profound anguish or dread), and emphasizes action, freedom and decision as fundamental in rising above the essentially absurd condition of humanity (which is characterized by suffering and inevitable death). For more details, see the section on the doctrine of Existentialism.
( Existentialism)


I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100. --- Woody Allen

An early forerunner of existentialism was Blaise Pascal. In 1670, his book Pensées was published; in the work he described many fundamental existential themes. Pascal argued that life without God is meaningless and miserable. When people are exposed to their own emptiness, they create obstacles in order to overcome them and in this way attempt to escape boredom. These token-victories are merely diversions people use to distract themselves from their spiritual poverty and the recognition that one day they will die. According to Pascal this recognition of the reality of mortal existence is good reason for humans not to be atheistic. Thus, he presented his famous “wager” where the gambling believer has everything to gain and nothing to lose by putting his chips on the hope that there is a God, while the gambling unbeliever has nothing to gain and everything to lose by his unbelief. Sartre and other later atheistic existentialists will view this attempt at avoiding the inevitability of death as “bad faith” and as a refusal to accept the truth of human condition.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) is often called the "father of existentialism." Kierkegaard is commonly considered more of a religious thinker (or “religious poet” as he sometimes called himself) than a philosopher, for he never practiced or espoused a systematic or methodical way of thinking. In fact, in large part, his works were a polemic against modern philosophical rationalism with its emphasis on method, which had begun with Descartes and culminated in Hegel. Given Kierkegaard’s suspicion regarding the absolute reliability of reason, he often wrote under pseudonymous names. The reason for this was not to conceal his true identity but to distance himself (as an existential person) from the concepts and ideas contained in his works (as a thinker). Moreover, much of his work is ironic, in imitation of his mentor Socrates, and so these pseudonymous works should be read more like literature than straightforward philosophy (just as a reader of a novel should not mistake the ideas of a character with those of the author herself).

Nevertheless, Kierkegaard is often associated with the ideas of his pseudonyms and in particular the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus who said that "truth is subjectivity" and that the person of faith must make a kind of “leap.” Although the conflation of Kierkegaard with Climacus is a mistake, it cannot be denied the philosophical tenets of Climacus did have a major influence on the twentieth-century existential movement. Furthermore, the term “leap of faith” is frequently employed by both defenders and critics of twentieth-century existentialism who view the idea as signifying the need for choice and risk by the individual in deciding life’s ultimate meaning.

For Kierkegaard the idea of subjectivity signified the infinite depth dimension of human beings and so should not be understood as opposed to rational objectivity but rather as going beyond it. Understanding is always finite and so it can never fully grasp who or what people are as human beings. Or to put it another way, the apprehension of human’s existential selfhood extends beyond any philosophical definition of what a human being is. For this reason, the full extent of being human can only be apprehended from the inside, in terms of lived experience, and not from the outside, in terms of any scientific or objective definition, be it biological, psychological, or any other scientific theory of human nature. Friedrich Nietzsche was also a forerunner of the existential movement in his critique of Western culture and philosophy, in particular Plato and Christianity (which he called “Platonism for the masses”). Nietzsche realized that human nature and human identity vary depending on what values and beliefs humans hold. Although Nietzsche’s work, like Kierkegaard’s, is often ironic and ambiguous (and so open to different interpretations), he did frequently write about the capacity of human beings to create or recreate themselves. In this sense, then, Nietzsche influenced later existential thinkers such as Sartre (in his emphasis on freedom and choice) and Heidegger (in his emphasis on creativity and history).

In literature, the most famous nineteenth-century existential writer was Fyodor Dostoevsky. The statement by one of his characters that “without God everything is permissible” was taken up by both theistic and atheistic twentieth-century existential thinkers.
(New World Encyclopedia)

The thought of the major existential philosophers of the twentieth century grew out of the phenomenology of Husserl, which attempted to critique positivism and psychologism by grounding all perception, experience, and knowledge in structures of human consciousness. Husserl stressed that being is always being for a consciousness, or that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Heidegger transformed this into the core existential notion that being is always being, not for a pure consciousness, but rather for a concrete existence. This means that consciousness is a property of human existence (Dasein), which has "being-in-the-world" and so exists in a historical context. Heidegger, however, came to reject the idea that his philosophy was “existentialist.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, embraced the term existentialism. His version of existentialism is set out in popular form in his 1946 essay L'Existentialisme est un humanisme, translated as “Existentialism is a Humanism.” In the essay he asserts his famous dictum, "Existence precedes essence," which is generally taken to mean that there is no predefined essence to humanity and so people must decide for themselves the meaning of existence. Sartrean existentialism takes it for granted that there is no God, and so for this reason essence or the nature of human beings cannot precede their existence. For how could there be an idea or definition of what human nature essentially is if there is no Creator or Divine Mind who created it? Sartre holds that human beings are not only free to act as they choose, but they have a responsibility to do so. They must accept the forlornness of their condition in that there is no God and so no preexisting moral principles, nature, or laws that can tell them what to do. Instead, they are on their own and so must decide for themselves. But in choosing for themselves “[they] choose all humanity.” Moreover, for Sartre it is human actions that determine who humans are. They cannot blame their environment, circumstance, or chance for their successes and failures. Rather it is their actions that make them who they are and these are determined by their own choices.

Albert Camus was another well-known writer and thinker associated with existentialism. Camus famously compared human condition to the myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned each day to roll a rock up a hill only to have the rock, once it is almost to the top, roll back down. The next day Sisyphus must start all over despite knowing the result will be the same. Likewise, human beings must stoically roll the rock up the hill each day by creating their own meaning despite knowing the universe is essentially absurd and meaningless. Camus depicted many of his existential themes in fiction and drama, such as The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall, and The Possessed.

Gabriel Marcel developed a kind of Christian existentialism, though he, like Heidegger, rejected the term and instead preferred to call himself a “Christian Socratic.” Other theistic existentialists include Paul Tillich, Miguel de Unamuno, and Martin Buber. Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia, and later in France, in the decades preceding World War II. Though these existential theists did not accept Sartre’s and Camus’ notion that the universe is absurd and meaning must be created by the individual, they nevertheless also distanced themselves from rationalist philosophies and insisted that the individual must participate in being or existence in order to come to a deeper appreciation and fuller understanding of it. Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson in a different way developed an existential Thomism, which took many of the insights and approaches of the existential movement, but applied and attributed them to the metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas.
(New World Encyclopedia)


In the 1950s and 1960s, existentialism experienced a surge of interest in popular art forms. In fiction, Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets adopted existentialist themes. Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf was based on an idea in Kierkegaard's Either/Or (1843), and "arthouse" films began quoting and alluding to existentialist thought and thinkers. Simultaneously, in Sartre, Parisian university students found a hero for the May 1968 demonstrations, and others were appropriating the themes found in Camus and Kierkegaard. The despair of choice and the anxiety of the unknowing self featured prominently in cinema and novels.

Existentialist films deal with existential concepts that are familiar to the average person, such as free will, personal identity, individuality, responsibility, mind versus reality, and what "really matters." The Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn't There, Linklater's Waking Life, Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, are good examples of existential films. Woody Allen films tend to touch the subject in a humorous manner, though his Match Point (2005) provides a more serious consideration of some existentialist themes. Existential cinema also explores themes such as retaining authenticity in an apathetic, mechanical world; the consciousness of death, e.g., Heidegger's “being towards death”—exemplified in Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal (1957); and the feelings of alienation and loneliness consequent to being unique in a world of mass media and consumerism.
(New World Encyclopedia)

Criticisms of existentialism

Herbert Marcuse criticized existentialism from a Marxist perspective, especially Sartre's Being and Nothingness, for projecting certain features, such as anxiety and meaninglessness, which really derive from the modern experience of living in an oppressive society, onto the nature of existence itself:

          In so far as Existentialism is a philosophical doctrine, it remains an idealistic doctrine: it hypothesizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics. Existentialism thus becomes part of the very ideology which it attacks, and its radicalism is illusory (Marcuse 1972, 161).

Theodor Adorno, in his Jargon of Authenticity, criticized Heidegger's philosophy, and in particular Heidegger’s use of language. Adorno viewed this as a mystifying ideology of advanced industrial society and its power structure.

Roger Scruton claimed, in his book From Descartes to Wittgenstein, that both Heidegger's concept of inauthenticity and Sartre's concept of bad faith were incoherent. For both Heidegger and Sartre deny any universal moral creed, yet they speak of these concepts as if everyone were bound to abide by them. In chapter 18, he writes:

          In what sense Sartre is able to 'recommend' the authenticity which consists in the purely self-made morality is unclear. He does recommend it, but, by his own argument, his recommendation can have no objective force.

Familiar with this sort of argument, Sartre claimed that bad and good faith do not represent moral ideas; rather, they are ways of being. Heidegger would also claim authenticity as an ontological rather than an ethical way of being.

Logical positivists, such as Carnap and Ayer, claim that existentialists frequently become confused over the verb "to be" in their analyses of "being." The verb is prefixed to a predicate and to use the word without any predicate is meaningless. Borrowing from Kant's argument against the ontological argument for the existence of God, they argue that existence is not a property.
(New World Encyclopedia)


Main themes

The emphasis on existence by existential thinkers is often summarized in Sartre’s famous assertion that “existence precedes essence.” Although the various philosophers differ in regard to the nature of this priority and the reasons for it, their thought can all be called existential in the broad sense because of the priority they give to existence or being. For this reason, these thinkers share the assumption that existence precedes essence in that existence or being exceeds all rational conceptions and objective or scientific knowledge of it. Or, to paraphrase the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, there is more in heaven and earth than in all of philosophy. This leads some of the more radical existentialists to take what opponents consider to be an irrational or anti-philosophic position.

Another aspect of “existence preceding essence” is the idea that human beings are in Heidegger's phrase "thrown" into existence. Existential thought, therefore, differs from the modern Western rationalist tradition extending from Descartes to Husserl in that it rejects the idea that the most certain and primary reality is rational consciousness. Descartes argued that humans could think away everything that exists and so doubt its reality, but they could not think away or doubt the thinking consciousness itself. This reality of consciousness is more certain than any other reality. Existentialism decisively rejects this argument. Instead, it asserts that humans always already find themselves in a world. That is, they find themselves in a prior context and history that is given to and situated within their consciousness. The priority, or a priori and a posteriori, therefore, is not thinking consciousness, but according to Heidegger, "being-in-the-world." Many existentialists consider this “being thrown into existence” as prior to, and the horizon or context of, all other thoughts or ideas about who human beings are. For Heidegger, this “facticity” of being thrown into existence means a supreme being determines who and what humans are, while for Sartre it means that the definitions of what it means to be human is something humans choose and create.

The recognition of human freedom leads existential philosophers to emphasize will over reason. Many of them view action and decision, therefore, as fundamental to human existence. This position is opposed to rationalism and positivism, where reason is the sufficient means of determining “what we should do.” Existentialists argue against definitions of human beings as primarily rational, knowing subjects who relate to reality as an object of knowledge. Moreover, they deny human actions can or ought to be regulated strictly by rational principles or laws. They also reject the notion that human beings can be defined in terms of their behavior as in empirical science. They stress, then, the ambiguity and risk of life and the anxiety of having to choose in existential situations. This leads some of the atheistic existentialists to view human beings as subjects in an indifferent and absurd universe where meaning is not provided by the natural order. Meaning, then, must be created, however provisionally and unstably, by the actions and interpretations of individuals. They emphasize the authenticity that is needed in accepting responsibility for decisions. More theistic interpretations will likewise emphasize freedom, risk, and decision not by denying any ultimate or absolute Truth, but by arguing that the individual must appropriate and so subjectively discover the Truth for oneself. In turn, only by living the truth can one be said to know the truth. Both atheistic and theistic versions of existentialism share the view that the individual must pursue the question of the meaning of existence, and that this question is above all other scientific and philosophic pursuits.
(New World Encyclopedia)