What is Phenomenology?
A Heuristic Introduction to Phenomenology
“[Phenomenology] brings into view something with which we are at once deeply intimate but at the same time, of which we are typically neglectful: our own experience.”
- Joel Smith, Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction (xiii).
“Without doing phenomenology, it may be practically impossible to understand phenomenology.” “…without entering into the doing, the basic thrust and import of phenomenology is likely to be misunderstood at the least or missed at most.”
- Don Ihde, Experimental Phenomenology (3, 4).
“…phenomenological method grows and changes due to the progress made precisely with its help into the subjects under investigation. [It] is never a technique. As soon as it becomes one it has fallen away from its own proper nature”.
- Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology (21).
Table of Contents
I: What is Phenomenology?
Phenomenology—from the Greek phenomena + logos—means something like an account (logos) of appearances (phenomena).
The Greek phainomenon is derived from phainesthai, which means to appear, become visible, or show itself. The term logos is derived from the Greek legein, which means ‘to assemble’, ‘to gather’. In the 200+ ancient Greek compound nouns ending in -logos, the term refers either to (1) this notion of ‘gathering up’ and/or ‘assembly’, or (2) ‘word’ or ‘speech’, forming words such s ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue/discourse’. In either case, the root (leg, from legein) can convey both meanings, as in ‘gathering up and saying’ or even gathering up and then letting something be seen/apprehended/understood/experienced—i.e., making it available for seeing—by being vocalized or recorded.
Phenomenology is not concerned with questions about a phenomenon’s ontological status—i.e., what it is or might be “in reality”, beyond/beneath what/how we experience it in our lives); phenomenology does not presume/seek a metaphysical/essential substance that lies behind/beneath what is experienced in everyday life, and doesn’t permit these types of assumptions to affect taking account of the way a phenomenon shows itself. Similarly, Phenomenology is also not concerned with questions about ‘why’ a phenomenon exists (essentially or accidentally); phenomenology does not presume/seek any explanation about the cause of the phenomenon, and doesn’t allow these types of assumptions to affect taking account of the appearing of a phenomenon. Existential phenomenologists take account in order to reveal (i.e., render visible) the thing that shows itself (in the manner that it shows itself, however it appears),
In phenomenology, what counts specifically as a phenomenon is anything that appears “in” (or “as”) experience. By “experience”, phenomenologists mean something quite precise. The German word for this specific thing is Erlebnis, meaning “lived experience”. Lived experience is your everyday, immediate experience. It is your everyday experience of the ‘real’, the world within which you find yourself and within which you have your individual experiences. The terms of the ‘real’ are not something that you dictated; you cannot transform it at will or ‘turn it off’ (in the way that you could do turn off or transform something in your imagination). Your individual actions are carried out “within” the ‘real’, the latter which you have not constructed.
Phenomenology wants to give an account of this—lived experience. It wants to give an account of the natural, immediate experiencing of some phenomenon by assembling words that reveal or disclose this immediate experience as it is experienced—and through this account allows it to be experienced (by another).
ERLEBNIS: LIVED EXPERIENCE
In order to ‘see’ phenomenologically, it is imperative to directly orient oneself to ‘lived experience’. Without this direct experience of that to which ‘lived experience’ is referring, much of phenomenology makes little/no sense.
The German term for ‘lived experience’, Erlebnis, contains leben, which means ‘to live’. The verb erleben means to ‘live through something’, a definition in which we could locate both an aspect of activity (a being-active: live through something) and one of passivity (a being-passive: live through something): lived experience is living through the [something] given. This is the most immediate way in which thing are ‘given’. Phenomenologists use the word ‘given’ to describe the most basic character of experience: appearing is happening, and this appearing (i.e., experience, or, simply, awareness) is not subject to my will. It is thus, they say, ‘given’. Lived experience, in others words, is your living through the uninterrupted stream of appearing.
Lived experience is not sensory experience. In my everyday, natural, immediate life, I do not experience myself as compiling sensations in order to make meaning. Instead, things are immediately “meaningful”. Things appear as ‘always already’ meaningful—they already ‘make sense’ in a basic enough way so that I am not disoriented. In other words, I’ve already made sense of it in a basic enough way so that it fits into my immediate experience, even if the way something fits into my immediate experience is as something (some individual thing) that is meaningless/trivial (within the larger background experience against which the specific thing is trivial). In other words, phenomenological meaning is not constructed by reflective study. It is what is directly meaningful as if unmediated. Philosopher Max van Manen—in his 2014 book, Phenomenology of Practice, writes that lived experience is “…a kind of immediate awareness that is not (yet) aware of itself” (225).
UNDERSTANDING “LIVED EXPERIENCE” VIA AN EXAMPLE OF PHENOMENOLOGICAL RESEARCH
We can further define more clearly this notion of ‘lived’ experience by distinguishing it from accounts of experience that emerge from ‘reflective’ awareness. The task of reflective awareness is to thematize, organize, conceptualize, theorize, etc.—i.e., to stabilize and so provide conceptual or theoretical clarity to the flow of our immediate experience. The task of phenomenology is to reanimate through description the lived experience that is prior to this reflection. We might thus also call our ‘lived experience’ something like pre-reflective experience. Let’s use an example from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (347-9):
Let us imagine that moved by jealousy, curiosity, or vice I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole. (…) behind that door a spectacle is presented as ‘to be seen,’ a conversation as ‘to be heard’. The door, the keyhole are at once both instruments and obstacles; they are presented as ‘to be handled with care’; the keyhole is given as ‘to be looked through close by and a little to one side’, etc. (…) But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me!
Sartre’s description is of the lived experience of looking through a keyhole and then being caught doing so. A keyhole is small, and so one can imagine the pains through which one would have to put oneself to see the spectacle in its spatial entirety (as if it were on a stage). Voices are likely muffled. There are moments when nothing can be seen, and so he might ‘glue’ his ear to the door to get something, anything. Sensing movement behind the door—or due simply to impatience, or both—he returns his eye to the hole. His awareness is fully ‘thrown’ through the keyhole, behind the door… until he hears the footsteps behind him. He turns around. He’s been caught, and in that very instant feels his awareness in his very own flesh.
If we asked Sartre to tell us what happened, his report would be some variation of “I got caught looking through a keyhole”—which is exactly what happened. This reporting is formulated reflectively, or looking back unto the event in order to provide details relevant to the question, “What happened?” From the perspective of reflective awareness—a position which we may describe as ‘objective’ or even ‘third person’—Sartre looked through the keyhole, tried to see or hear what was going on behind the door, and was caught. None of this is false.
This reporting, however, requires adopting quite a different stance on the experience when compared to the experience he actually had of attempting to capture what was happening behind the keyhole. When he was at the keyhole, he was fully absorbed in what was appearing, and not at all reflecting self-consciously on the fact that he was experiencing. Phenomenological description must remain at this level of experience. Sartre’s description is itself an example of such a phenomenological description, because it aims precisely to portray the situation as it was lived and not as it subsequently appeared in explicit self-reflection. In other words, it aimed at reanimating the experience as it was experienced.
Notice that Sartre’s feeling-objectified (i.e., his being given himself in being caught) is not an ‘appearance’ in the way that, say, a person appears when they enter a room. In this example, the appearance of the feeling of being objectified ”appears” in the body, affectively. This particular phenomenon—this particular appearance—is not an appearance that appears to the eyes but is rather experienced.
We can notice, further, that the ‘I’ appears differently in lived experience than it does in reflective experience: in the lived experience of peering through the keyhole, Sartre’s ‘self’, in a word, disappears. In any similar such experience—of being engaged in something, such as peering or even typing—we typically are not explicitly aware of ourselves. Our awareness is ‘thrown’ elsewhere—through the keyhole or on the computer screen while typing. My ‘self’ resurfaces when I report that ‘I was looking through the keyhole’ or that ‘I was typing’. In other words, it is only in reflective awareness that both ‘I’ and whatever ‘what’ I was doing become objects of reflection. In a reflective stance, to the question ‘what are you doing’, I would respond “I am writing”, but in the act of writing itself—our attention thrown unto the screen—the lived experience itself could perhaps be better described by something like “I am writing.” Don Ihde writes in his book, Experimental Phenomenology (31)—“the phenomenological ‘I’ takes on its significance through its encounter with things, persons, and every type of otherness it may meet”. In other words, my ‘self’ is always already wrapped up in a world that precedes it, and this pre-reflective, passive having of experience—this implicit awareness—is the condition for explicit self-awareness (i.e., of my being able to say “I”). In yet other words, there is an implicit awareness we have of ourselves while explicitly being aware of some object or situation. Sartre shows that awareness itself is not an object, per se, but is more of a happening. In our everyday, lived experience, we are always aware of something; the specific ‘thing’ may change, but awareness in general, awareness of something—i.e., being wrapped up in something that is beyond oneself—does not.
In this case, Sartre was “moved by” jealousy/curiosity/vice. Jealousy/curiosity/vice—none of which he manufactured with his will—moved or motivated him to respond to a situation that called him to respond in a particular way. Then, his attention was called his attention away from the spectacle behind the door to the “footsteps in the hall”. In a sense, he experienced a kind of provocation to—first—search with his eyes and ears (by the to-be-heard/seen event behind the door) and—second—to turn around (by the footsteps—the to-be-located—behind his body). His attention wasn’t like a spotlight; there wasn’t an internal ‘self’ (a disengaged ‘consciousness’ that stood outside/above his situation) that made the decision to be moved by jealousy or curiosity or vice, but rather the situation itself exceeded his individual will—we could say that it struck him or imposed itself on his will, and this particular imposition made available the option to look. The situation, in other words, called him to behave in a particular way. He felt compelled to investigate—or he was called to investigate—what was behind the door; he experienced the situation behind the door as compelling (and likely experienced the door itself as an obstacle).
THE FUNCTION OF PHENOMENOLOGICAL DESCRIPTION
Phenomenological description is meant to reanimate living sense. The objective is to use words to point to a lived experience that the reader must then experience him or herself. The words, in other words, must bring lived experience to life, and this bringing to life has the effect of producing in the reader a sort of lucid or striking, im-mediate and unreflective recognition, the feeling of seeing ‘into’ (in-sight) some experience, of bringing it close. Its aim is to ‘show’ prereflective livedness, to provoke or evoke it, to kindle or waken—and not to contain; to catch and release, not to capture. The objective is vocative one, meant to invoke an experience or provoke it into appearing. Alternatively, we could consider the objective to be an exhortative one, urging the reader to ‘see’ or have a particular experience. Much a like a magic spell, the incantation does its work and then disappears; we do not need the words any longer because it is done: the ghost, the effect, has (hopefully) made its appearance.
This is because the living sense of some experience cannot be said, only indicated or pointed to. Simply naming a livedness would, in a sense, destroy it. Consider the example given above. Instead of offering this example, we could have simply named the experience: getting caught. We would no longer be pointing to a living-through, but would rather be fixing it, letting the phrase stand in for it, reducing it in order to grasp it. The use of examples in reanimating living sense is paramount because the example is able to give voice to (and make knowable) a livedness—the singularity—that is not straightforwardly nameable or describable. Phenomenological examples point to or indicate an experience in its livedness (i.e., its singularity). The example—the collection of words—holds in abeyance (or suspends, as if in mid-air), so to speak, a livedness, and lets it be seen by another.
Phenomenology requires one to actively and continuously remind oneself that the word or phrase is playing this ‘invoking’ function, and is not a direct or univocal representation of a fixed thing (or its metaphysical essence/substance). In other words, one must live the words as invoking always a livedness or a living-through. When we become habituated to familiar uses of words, we tend to forget this, and can actually imagine our words to be transparently giving us things. In the habitual use of a word to stand in for a livedness, we may first let the words stand in for the thing and then let them become the thing by not living them as invocations. Such words or phrases become meaningless. Jacques Derrida—in his article ‘White Mythology’—likened these words/concepts to coins whose value-inscriptions had been ‘ground down’ (i.e., used up, detached from its specific situation). As a result, the ‘value’ of these coins (i.e., significance as referring to a livedness) became ‘absolute’ in the sense that it was referring to nothing—a coin without inscription—and so, in a sense, could mean anything.
Phenomenology cannot do its work once words/concepts stand in for the thing itself, let alone if they (are treated as having) become the thing. One may find a word or concept that describes a particular livedness so very well that it becomes a part of one’s core vocabulary. With use, however, it is possible that the word/concept loses its potency (in invoking a livedness) and—in its employment—feels empty and forced, even. Or, perhaps its detachment (from experience) becomes invisible, and one begins living it as a kind of ‘truth’, disabling one from seeing the livednesses in other descriptions. This is likely why French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says that the phenomenologist must remain a “perpetual beginner”, one who must always return to lived experience. They must always be in touch with experience itself, ready and willing to part with their words or concepts or thinking if the latter no longer embrace a livedness.
The phenomenologist must themselves perform phenomenologies of their own phenomenologizing in order to see precisely how their own words/concepts function; no one can do this for them. Are these words/concepts referring to a livedness? The phenomenologist must at each turn begin at the beginning, so to speak, lest their descriptions become lifeless and flat or far too injected with reflection or theory (and so more intellectually satisfying than phenomenologically so). There is a difference between being basically satisfied with a description (“it works”) and being completely taken with one (“yes, that’s the one!”). When one’s core vocabulary no longer does the latter, it may be a sign that one has been led astray from lived experience itself. And one must always live with the awareness that even one’s core vocabulary exists only to be seen through, lest one be unable to see the livedness contained in other descriptions.
Something similar could be said about reading phenomenological descriptions. In a sense, this is more challenging because it forces you to be open to terms being used in ways in which you are not accustomed to seeing, which entails examining your own relationships with certain terms (and maybe loosening the grip that your understanding has on certain words and/or relationships between words). The concept, remember, is not what we are trying to understand. The effectiveness of a phenomenological text (including the article you are reading) depends largely on the reader’s willingness to spend the time to ‘access’ (experientially) the livednesses to which the author is referring, and not just critically evaluate/examine the words/concepts themselves.
This is why phenomenologists have historically employed various means—apart from propositional discourse—of communicating lived experiences: example or anecdote, expressive imagery or narrative, poetry, poetising, etc. Phenomenologists have also borrowed from novels, poetry, mythical and religious texts. This is all done in an attempt to evoke or revoke [as in ‘call back’] or re-call a lived experience, to make accessible a certain pathos—one not readily given to the logic of propositional discourse (or of summary or paraphrase in general). What is most important is not the method; it is not the case that one must use an anecdote or example in order to ‘do’ phenomenology. The specific means by which we reanimate some experience is secondary. We let the experience itself be our guide; in a somewhat strange turn of phrase, we let the experience itself tell us how to describe it, and in so doing we remain open to the expressive modes outside of traditional propositional discourse.
The standard for evaluating phenomenological description is whether or not the description resonates with the living sense of an experience. A good description will resonate with the living sense of an experience in such a way that the reader will be able to recognize her or his experience in that description; indeed, it will “spark” that experience in the reader. Further, this description will draw the reader’s attention to something in that experience that she or he had not formerly noticed. What is important to recognize is that there are no independent criteria for the specific construction of the description. Phenomenological description does not require anything specific: a specific verb tense (as in ‘only present continuous’, etc.) or specific narrative style (only prose, no poetry, or only prose and poetry, no fiction, etc.), tone (as in it must be idiomatic, prolix, poetic, etc.), etc. The description itself is guided by—written by, in a sense—the experiencing itself.
Of course, the terms we have at our disposal are inheritances, and are capable of doing violence to our own lived reality. As inheritances, they are historical, traditional. This by itself is not a problem. The problem is when they are disconnected from lived experience, when they are treated as (objective) ‘reality’—as the way things are and as final—and so not understood as historically (and so politically and culturally) ‘constituted’. This disconnection is also a violence, and the phenomenologist—who must perpetually remind him/herself to return to experience, who must perpetually forget—functions as an important agent of change insofar as their only loyalty is to lived experience itself.
Phenomenology, most basically, gives voice to a livedness, a givenness as given. First, this means that it gives voice to an unfolding, a process, a fluidity, an ever-changing, impermanent—and so it is never ‘complete’. Second, this means that the phenomenologist treats all phenomena as given and not as reflective of an objective reality and/or some ‘hierarchy’ therein (in which some things are objectively/“really” more ‘real’ and others less so). In short, it gives voice not to what is more real and less real, correct and incorrect, normal and abnormal, good and bad, etc., but what is given as more or less real, correct or incorrect, normal or abnormal, good or bad, etc. Finally, this means that phenomenology is inherently critical, precisely because of its loyalty to lived experience. In other words, it questions our existing ways of seeing, thinking, feeling, doing, and being. It uncovers norms—inclusions/exclusions/occlusions—presuppositions, habitual ways of perceiving/thinking/feeling/doing/being, that were hitherto tucked away, constituting our experience. It allows (and even encourages) us to see (or re-see or un-see) every variety of experiencing in a transformative way, allowing us to re-think and re-configure the concepts we commonly employ to interpret experience. And it also gives us a new way of engaging with non-phenomenological works, opening us up to the ways that lived experience may have motivated the construction of categories/terms/philosophies? Finally, phenomenology’s criticality means that it does not spare itself—it is self-critical:
Phenomenology continues to make us mindful to be critically and philosophically aware of how our lives (and our cognitive, emotional, embodied, and tacit understandings) are socially, culturally, politically, and existentially fashioned. But phenomenology also reminds us that these constructions themselves are always in danger of becoming imperatives, rationalities, epistemologies, and ontologies that need to be bracketed, deconstructed, and substituted with more reflective portrayals.
- Max van Manen, Phenomenology of Practice (13).
TRUTH & KNOWLEDGE IN PHENOMENOLOGY
The way most of us (most of the time) think of “truth” involves a matching up of our words or concepts with some thing/situation “in the world” (an occurrence, a state of being, etc.). Both are (and must be) fixed. The word/concept must mean something specific enough to be able to peg it to the thing in the world; then we’re able to see if the description is correct—if it’s the truth. Is the thing in the world faithful to our word/concept/description? To make this assessment we must be in possession of both of the word/concept and the thing in the world in order to judge whether or not they match up. And to be in possession of both means that both are fixed enough to be able to make any kind of equivalence. They both must, in other words, possess some kind of determinate and fixed essence so that the matter of truth can be settled/rectified. This amounts to something like the application of a method to the product of reflective awareness (i.e., after lived experience has been interpretively fixed). However, the types of claims that meet this standard—what we might readily describe as being “correct”—do not succeed in apprehending actual lived experiencing.
These fixed essences, however, are derivative of a more primordial process of experiencing; our fixed idea of “x” is derivative of our many lived experiencings of “x”. More specifically, we can simply say that I never encounter “x” outside of context. I never encounter an individual thing in splendid isolation. Even more primordially, however, there is experience as such, appearing as such. This most basic happening of experience—the singular thing “within” which every individual thing can be said to occur—it is not subject to my will. I didn’t create it. I can’t turn it off. It’s not optional. It is—as we said above—given. It is self-given; I do nothing to preserve/maintain it. And it shows itself. And the independent, fixed (reflective) categories that we employ to pronounce on truth/falsity rest on this self-given experiencing that is always already happening. We can describe this as appearing/experience/existence as such. It is this background, always-already-there happening of experience is what phenomenology wants to contact and describe. And in making contact with the ground of our facts, we can see the norms, principles, presuppositions, etc. involved in the way we’ve established the terms into which we translate experience.
It is not the case that these two things—fixed concepts and the more original self-given appearing of experience in general—are opposed to each other. Rather, the basic, background continuous self-happening of experiencing is what allows us to see things that stand still, such as the “facts”, our principles of objective “truth”. (Of course, my very ability to see things stand still is also a feature of this self-givenness.)
Phenomenological ‘knowledge’, then, consists of conclusions about experiencing based on accurate phenomenological descriptions. This kind of knowledge—phenomenological knowledge—concerns the experience of some phenomenon or, alternatively, the form or structure of some experience (e.g., drinking wine, jealousy, perception, being a gendered/raced body, illness, suffering, playing music, disability, romantic love, time, wonder, existence/being, etc.). What is meant by ‘form’ or ‘structure’ is also a (phenomenological) description of something like the general quality of an experience that allows it to be recognized as a specific kind of experience (e.g., drinking wine, jealousy, etc.). It is important to note that “form” or “structure” do not refer to some objective, metaphysical structure/substance that organises sensation or anything similar. What is given in actual, lived experience is never the thing in its entirety (never, for example, embodiment as such), and so our descriptions are never ‘final’ in any way. Phenomenological description is more about establishing an openness to engage with experience than it is about dis-covering fixed/objective realities/essences or something like metaphysical substance.
In part two of this article we’ll explore in more detail how to do phenomenology.
II: How to Do Phenomenology
Phenomenology requires participation; one cannot simply look on indifferently, but must participate in either/both of producing one’s own descriptions or in being led by the descriptions of others.
Many of the insights in these articles on phenomenology (including those by existential phenomenologists) can only be gained through a kind of participation. While it is entirely possible to appreciate intellectually the arguments presented in this article, the novelty—the phenomenological insights—of the ideas in this article will only be seen through active participation, for it is only through active participation that one can actually do phenomenology (and so fully appreciate what one reads about it).
In this light, the language of phenomenological description does not aim for factual correctness in picking out features of experiences—there is no ‘correct’ way to describe some experiencing—but rather aims to invoke an experience, and so to call the reader to (a) turn her or his attention to her or his own experience and; (b) notice therein something new (and transformatively new). In so doing, phenomenology employs language in a way that is different again from the usual use of designation to pick out already established facts.
What follows is a not a formal/theoretical discussion of the important concepts of phenomenological method. Instead, what follows is a discussion of the experience of doing phenomenology—a phenomenology of doing phenomenology.
THE METHOD OF PHENOMENOLOGICAL RESEARCH:
Phenomenology requires a stance toward one’s experience that is not our ‘natural’ or ‘common sense’ stance. The process of adopting the stance required by phenomenology has been described by one or more of the phrases ‘reduction’ or ‘epoché’ or ‘reduction proper’.
Generally speaking, these terms describe the process of reorienting oneself toward one’s experience. More specifically, they describe something like ‘stepping out’ of our ‘natural attitude’ towards the world, which amounts to something like ‘leaving aside’ our natural way of interpreting our experience. Our natural way of interpreting our experience is predicated on certain terms into which we translate the way(s) in which we experience or ‘live’ the ‘world’ (and reflectively describe it).
One of the ways in which we can see our own ‘understandings’ is in noticing our immediate reaction to a phenomenological description. Take, for instance, the experience of being objectified in Sartre’s description of being caught peering through the keyhole. Do we find ourselves reaching for or offering some explanation? “That’s just basic evolutionary psychology”, we might say, or “that can be explained by a basic understanding of neurology”. Strictly speaking, any of these ‘explanations’ are not what phenomenology wants. To be sure, there may be sufficient evidence to prove that a particular experience was caused by a particular something, but this does nothing to add to our account of the lived experience itself. Understanding the wiring and firing of synapses in my brain is helpful for other purposes, including diagnostics or prognostics, but this is not the function of phenomenology. Whatever our theoretical loyalties, phenomenology asks that we actively (and continually) abandon them and stay with experience as experienced.
Phenomenology does not found theories or theoretical systems that contain/explain experiences. In fact, this is what phenomenology attempts to avoid: systems that replace the need to contact directly experience itself. The ‘reduction’ requires that one avoid or suspend one’s automatic reliance on (or search for) explanation from any existing framework (especially those that we have come to favour, because these are likely most influencing our interpretation of experience, and so most likely interfering with direct contact therewith). This disavowal of explanatory frameworks is what is meant in calling phenomenology a method without presuppositions.
Phenomenology cannot be called a “method” in any traditional sense of the term. While it may be employed in the service of, or in order to test, other theories, phenomenology itself is not committed to any particular theory or set of theories. And precisely because phenomenology is aimed at describing—in principle—an infinite number of experiences, it cannot begin with the kind of commitments found in traditional methodologies.
Take our example of phenoemenological research, Sartre’s description in the first part of this article (in which we defined phenomenology): Sartre has been caught peering through a keyhole (347-9). In phenomenology, completing this task is not a matter of employing some procedure that help us access lived experience, but rather of abandoning concepts in order to do so. It is not a matter of seeing or comparing lived experience to the content of some existing theory, but rather of letting description conform to the experiencing itself. This means, most importantly, that the ‘method’ not be fixed, which is one of the reasons we choose to not call it a method at all. In short, no particular procedure will necessarily produce access to lived experience, because technical procedures do not comprehend the particularities of situations or, rather, they tend to ignore them.
For this reason, results are not necessarily repeatable in doing phenomenology. I may read a phenomenological description that is successful at reanimating the lived sense of some phenomenon, but it is not necessarily the case that my own phenomenology of the same phenomenon will produce the same result. A phenomenology of, say, falling asleep, could produce multiple different descriptions, all of which I might be able to recognize. ‘Seeing’ the truth of any one of these descriptions is not the result of a ‘method’, but is rather the result of participating in the description of the lived experience of some phenomenon.
The process of following the directives of a phenomenologist, therefore, is not one of learning a set of rules. This ‘process’ does not follow a linear development of applying rules that will then produce insights. The insight—the moment of seeing—is not guaranteed by any technical rule or tactic; in fact, the insight is not guaranteed at all. Instead, the process of being able to see phenomenologically is best described by something like assuming a different stance toward one’s experience—or, in other words, adopting what we could call a phenomenological ‘attitude’. The word ‘attitude’ is also good because it can convey that one must be open to seeing something new (without allowing habitual interpretations to impinge on one’s openness). But even “attitude” is not quite right.
In any discussion of phenomenological method, it is important to remember that the process of adopting the phenomenological attitude and of seeing phenomenologically is itself an experiencing, itself a livedness, and so attempting to ‘codify’ it in some technical or repeatable procedure would necessarily fail to capture the process as process. In this light, we might even say that the process is really just a kind of internal repositioning done in order to see how one experiences something. This process is the experience of continuously and rigorously avoiding the impressions of any explanatory framework in order to contact and then remain in contact with the livedness itself: indeed, it is not the case that once contact is made it maintains itself. In this sense, then, the gestures intended to reposition oneself vis-a-vis the phenomenon cannot be ‘defined’, but must respond to the experience being explored itself. A technical set of procedures or some kind of methodological framework would really miss the point.
Surely I could attempt to employ the directives of a particular phenomenologist and so see/experience what they ‘saw’. This would allow me to—in a sense—continue the projects of these phenomenologists. I could continue to see (with their eyes, so to speak) things they never looked at or did/could not see. This would amount to something like building upon an existing kind of contact with experience. That said, any general ‘method’—as we’ve said—would never provide something like a final word.
THE METHOD OF PHENOMENOLOGICAL RESEARCH:
THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL REDUCTION
The phenomenological ‘method’ is thus better described as kind of a stance toward experience than a ‘method’. What is really being described in discussing phenomenological ‘method’ is the living sense of adopting a stance that allows us to see the living sense of some experiencing: a phenomenology of doing phenomenology. Here we will discuss the lived dimension of—i.e., the texture of the active participation involved in—engaging in phenomenological description.
We will discuss various kinds of unhelpful intellectual gestures that one might be inclined to make in the process of doing phenomenology, and explain why these gestures may be unhelpful in one’s project to describe experience.
Edmund Husserl had named the method of phenomenology the ‘reduction’, one that is discussed as containing two ‘moves’, namely, the ‘epoché’ and the ‘reduction proper’ (though not all phenomenologists adopt this language). The intent of these moves—collectively—is to reanimate the living sense of some experiencing. So, it is not the case that one does ‘move 1’ and then ‘move 2’, and then offers up a description, and then one is doing or has done phenomenology. Rather, this description (of the two ‘moves’ and of description) is a retroactive and reflective one. Further, the term ‘reduction’ is somewhat misleading, as it suggests a ‘reducing’—i.e., a diminution—of some kind. Instead, this term comes from the Latin reducere: re- [‘back, again’] + ducere [‘bring, lead’], meaning ‘bring back’. The phenomenological reduction, then, is not an attempt to slim down or abstract or even to find some kind of common denominator, but is rather intended to restore or reanimate—bring back—some livedness.
PHENOMENOLOGICAL METHOD I: THE EPOCHÉ
The first of these ‘moves’ is called the epoché, which in Greek (Sceptic) philosophy is a “suspension (of judgment)”; etymologically, it means something like ‘a holding on to’ or ‘a stopping at’ or ‘cessation’. As Dermot Moran tells us in his Introduction to Phenomenology (147):
Husserl characterized the practice of the epoché in many different ways: ‘abstention’… ‘dislocation’ from, or ‘unplugging’ or ‘exclusion’ of the positing of the world and our normal unquestioning faith in the reality of what we expense. He speaks of ‘withholding’, ’disregarding’, ‘abandoning’, ‘parenthesizing’… ‘putting out of action’…, and ‘putting out of play’… all judgements… But the essential feature is always to affect an alteration or ‘change of attitude’….
The epoché experience describes the experience of putting aside anything that does not allow me to see the ‘how’ of some experiencing. This stance is certainly not an ‘easy’ stance to adopt, but the difficulty is more in combatting (what has become) ‘common sense’ or our ‘pre-understandings’ rather than trying to understand technical vocabularies or procedures. In other words, the difficulty is more in stepping out of our most natural way of dealing with things (i.e., the way of dealing with things in our everyday lived experience)—what Husserl called the “natural attitude”—so that we can look at precisely the texture or quality of dealing with them. In the epoché we attempt to remove one’s own already-prejudicial involvedness.
To be sure, it is not possible to completely ignore these pre-understandings (and so to arrive at a view from everywhere/nowhere). In fact, by paying close attention to lived experience, phenomenological description brings precisely these ‘layers’ of situatedness to light (in untheorized form no less). As more layers of situatedness are ‘seen’, the epoché (as an experience, not as a concept) does not remain the same, and neither does experiencing itself: as more layers are ‘identified’—i.e., as more experiencings are ‘named’—there may be more to ‘bracket’ (if one holds to any one ‘concept’ and uses said concept to interpret the remainder of the experiencing). Alternatively, the uncovering of these layers—especially in moments that are transformatively new—one notices that the lived experiencing begins to say itself differently. Nonetheless, these identified layers of situatedness are themselves descriptions of phenomena: ‘preunderstandings’, ‘corporeality’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘culture’, ‘race’, ‘class’, ‘the social-historical’, etc. As names, they certainly respond to experiential motivations, but remaining tied to the phenomena themselves remains paramount.
At the same time, however, one must be wary of the risk that one comes to view one’s phenomenological inquiry as something like the ‘most basic’ or the ‘origin’ of other kinds of experiences—rather than simply as ‘part’ or as an ‘aspect’ of the (single) fabric of lived experience. Exploring the lived experience of, say, spatiality (by exploring various experiences and how spatiality is experienced within each) allows one to ‘see’ something essential about the experience of spatiality that was hitherto unnoticed or taken for granted. Phenomenologically, space as such does not exist; there is no experience of space as such. Instead, there are various different ways in which we experience the world spatially. Space as such is an abstraction; it is a reality we posit as existing absolutely and independently of our experience, based upon our concrete experiences which are themselves always perspectival and varied in how they construe space. The same can be said about something like ‘embodiment’ or ‘race’. These topics are complex and topics deserving of sustained phenomenological research (rather than using them as simple examples), but the point is simply to warn against the living of any one category as a sort of metaphysical point of departure (outside of individual investigations), which may lead one to conduct other phenomenologies (however unwittingly) through space/embodiment/race, precisely because one has come to privilege space/embodiment/race as foundational. In each case, we should not presume that we begin with some reality ‘as such’ and then we develop perspectives upon it; on the contrary, what we begin with—and all we ever have—are various perspectives, and the putative “absolute” realities of space/embodiment/race, and so on, are all projections from our actual experiences.
In the same vein, part of this process of the epoché is abandoning any presumed hierarchies within experiences, be they about more or less ‘fundamental’ aspects of the experience (as in “it’s obvious that in listening to music the experience of ‘hearing’ or ‘sound’ is most fundamental”), or even about particular qualitative judgements about the content of said experience (as in “it’s obvious that Schubert’s second symphony is more ‘meaningful’ than anything by Drake or Kenny Chesney”). Again, one’s experience of god is not necessarily ‘richer’ than one’s experience of a tree. And while it is certainly possible to possible to discover hierarchies in experience, the point is that we cannot assume them in advance. The point of the epoché is to abandon any assumptions whatsoever that do not allow one to trace a livedness (as) directly (as possible). And this abandoning is a doing, not something one should simply acknowledge intellectually. It requires active participation.
Finally, the experience of the epoché can be described as something like sustaining a state of ‘wonder’ or ‘openness’. Once one has decided to explore the experience of a tree or of hate or of god or of being a ‘man’, one does something like ‘open’ oneself up to the ‘how’ of experiences of trees or hate or god or manhood. In the ‘opening’, one recalls an experience and explores the texture of the ‘how’ of this experiencing, adding to the richness of one’s description with each recalling. One remains ‘open’ (in a state of wonder) about how some particular experience is had and—at least in the case of the very rich phenomenological descriptions—returns time and again to such experiencings, varying the circumstances of the experiencing in order to do something like ‘isolate’ it. I may wonder about my experience of my gender (another immensely complex topic) at a nightclub, or at a school, a gay bar, or in the retail store, La Vie en Rose, or as a teaching assistant teaching a course called, ‘Women and Society’, or while with my father, with my niece, my female boss, my male boss, watching the television series, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (or ‘Sons of Anarchy’), watching these series with my partner, and so on. The resulting description is, of course, not a commentary on the ‘essential reality’ of my gender or of gender itself, but simply a reflection of particular havings that may or may not change as one (or if one) continues to trace the experience itself. To be sure, the ‘objective’ of one’s returning to the experience is not to add to the description I already have but to describe the livedness itself. To be sure, one would likely be doing both, but the approach would resemble the latter, not the former.
PHENOMENOLOGICAL METHOD II:
THE REDUCTION PROPER
In the epoché, we step out of our everyday relationship with something. In the ‘reduction proper’—the second ‘move’ of the phenomenological reduction—we allow the thing to show itself in its happening and notice something about the general ‘structure’ of said experiencing. It is not lived as an orientation actively looking for something else, but is rather lived as more of a receptivity. The activity is in maintaining the receptivity, and then in ‘listening’ to the experience so that it can say itself; the ‘reduction’ is an attitude/stance that must be maintained and so is itself a process.
There are, of course, many ways to describe what it’s like to have an insight. If we were to describe—phenomenologically—what this is like, it might resemble something like making ‘contact’ with the livedness itself in order to ‘see’ some inner working of the experience; it is something like seeing ‘into’ a phenomenon. It would perhaps be more accurate to describe the experience as a ‘seeing-into’ (an experience) unto a kind of ‘world’ contained in the phenomenon itself.
We can also see now how the term ‘structure’ seems appropriate, since in the experiencing some specific thing will show itself that is unique about the thing being experience. There is something like an ‘essence’ involved in our different experiences, in that we do regularly recognize deeper ‘types’ or ‘structures’ that define the parameters of our experience. We need to remember, though, that these defining parameters—space, embodiment, race, remembering, etc.—are not metaphysical essences to which we have independent access. And this is why anything like a ‘complete’ reduction would be impossible, because we—the investigator—is always already in the midst of an unstoppable, uncontrollable experiencing—the single, given tissue of experience that we cannot turn off with our will. Such a thing—a complete reduction—would amount to being given the unmoving, in-itself (eternal) essence of a particular thing, a particular thing as such, outside of experience.
At the same time, we can also see how the term ‘structure’ is inappropriate, insofar as our understanding of the term is of a fixed, organized arrangement that ‘does’ a particular thing. What lies ‘beneath’ or ‘within’ everyday experience is hardly fixed, but the terms we use to represent the prereflective movement are necessarily so. The names we give to these experiencings are themselves descriptions of what we find given in experience, and, further, an honest description of these ‘essences’ shows them to be more complex and dynamic than our ‘metaphysical’ presumptions allow us to recognize.
PHENOMENOLOGICAL METHOD III: DESCRIPTION
The phenomenologist is often confronted with the challenge of finding the words to capture the ‘how’ of their experiencing. It is common in phenomenology to see how the terms we have inherited (and into which we commonly translate our experiencing) prove to be inadequate to capture accurately the form of our experiencing, never appearing in the way that our reflective awareness might suggest. The experience of doing phenomenology has the affect of loosening the grip that our existing terms have on our interpretation of experiencing.
The purpose of phenomenological description is to produce an account of lived experiencing capable of being experienced by another: not the ‘exact’ experience, but the general shape of some experiencing. For example, we can see from Sartre’s description (of being caught peering through a keyhole) something of being objectified or being ‘caught’—this is the experience under investigation—and so our description is of those elements we recognize to be pertinent to getting caught (and not other things intended to re-create the ‘exact’ experience). But in doing this—in going into our phenomenological investigation with some idea about what counts as being pertinent to the experience of getting caught—we can also become aware of our own commitments, commitments that we may very well have never considered to be ‘commitments’ at all. The experience we want to re-animate is an experience lifted out of the flow, relived, and then described, not the moment of happening in its absolute singularity, in the moment—in all its fullness—that will never again return.
Phenomenology does not claim to provide anything like a complete view of anything; a description will always be of a specific time/place and orientation. It will always be in a language that I didn’t invent (but had to learn), as part of a culture/history/family I didn’t choose (but to which I had to attune myself to become a participating member of society), as a body with its own inheritances and drives, and so on. The words I choose are themselves reflective of a kind of attunement to a cultural and historical norm rather than re-presenting a ‘natural’ relationship between essential kinds. These terms, ‘cultural’ and ‘historical’ are, to be sure, descriptions that I have inherited—terms in which I see—that I am using to describe different ways in which I’ve learned to ‘gather up’ phenomena to make sense of the world.
Phenomenology asks only that we keep in touch with experience itself, and this entails leaving behind—just temporarily and to the best of our ability—the ways in which we’ve come to interpret experience. In doing this, we open ourselves up to seeing habitual ways in which we are employing terms to represent some phenomenon. This can reveal, among (many) other things, any number of (implicit) privilegings of certain categories and terms over others (as more fundamental, as more ‘true’/‘good’/‘correct’, etc.). In loosening the grip that some of these words have on our experiencings, this makes it possible to see something new/anew, perhaps replacing previous motivations (to re-present said experiencings in a particular way) with new ones.
At the beginning of this thesis, we defined logos as ‘gathering up and letting be seen or experienced’. An essential contribution of phenomenology is not simply that ‘gathering up is never a pure gathering’—this much is recognized by phenomenology; a pure vantage point or the ‘view from nowhere’ is not possible—but rather that the way in which we live these terms in our everyday experiencing suggests a ‘natural’ or ‘proper’ or ‘metaphysically essential’ relationship between terms and things, and this essential relationship is taken for granted, tucked or folded into our experiencing. Seeing lived experience through these concepts has the effect of encouraging us to live these concepts as essential realities in and of themselves (and not simply as descriptions of livednesses, of positions, committments).
This is made clearer when we consider what phenomenologists have recognized as a function of language that does not simply—we could say—‘react’ to (and with) inherited meanings, but instead ‘precedes’ these inheritances. In other words, it is not that we have some experience and then return to some neutral place from which we select the appropriate word(s) to capture the objective experience. Rather, the (sense we have of some) experience is already contained in some language/gesture; the experience shows up pre-understood or already-interpreted as language. We already understand and our understanding—which is already an expression of committments, and so on—is already encoded in language/gesture; it already gives itself in and as language. Merleau-Ponty offers an example of this in his Phenomenology of Perception (190). Consider anger: in lived experiencing, “The gesture does not make me think of anger, it is the anger itself”. He writes (187),
speech is not the ‘sign’ of thought, if by this we understand a phenomenon that announces another as smoke announces fire. Speech and thought would only admit of this external relation if they were both thematically [reflectively] given; in fact, they are enveloped in each other; sense is caught in speech, and speech is the external existence of sense.
Phenomenological description is not a reflective attempt looking to ‘capture’ an experiencing but is closer to something like a letting-speak or something like—Merleau-Ponty writes (189)—fulfilling “a certain lack that seeks to be fulfilled”, and this doesn’t always produce descriptions that can/do conform to the logic of propositional discourse.
To be sure, the point is not that inherited terms are ‘wrong’ and/or ‘bad’ by virtue of being inherited. In fact, these terms—say, “emotional” or “familial” or whatever gesture we use to express “anger”—respond to experiential motivations; they provide the ‘tools’ with which we answer to ways in which we are ‘called’ in experience, offering a kind of response/resolution. In short, we talk about “emotion” or “families” because there is something in our experiencing that these names capture, and so there is not a ‘one-way’ relationship between language and meaning, as if language creates meaning in an absolute way. Instead, our everyday living of these names (and relationships between names—including but not limited to hierarchical structures) as natural/necessary names is problematic for phenomenology precisely because they may paper over the experiencing as lived, no longer naming a certain experience or no longer representing said experiencing universally. In other words, these categories do indeed have the power of giving voice to to realms of one’s experience previously unseen, but they also have the potential of becoming stale and leading to and/or containing misinterpretations of lived experience. The phenomenologist recognizes that these names—and these relationships between names—are themselves not outside of experiential motivation. They are not outside of experience. And so the project of phenomenology—of giving voice, of perpetually revisiting the experiencing to let it say itself—this critical project, is never (and can never be) complete. To quote Max van Manen again,
Phenomenology continues to make us mindful to be critically and philosophically aware of how our lives (and our cognitive, emotional, embodied, and tacit understandings) are socially, culturally, politically, and existentially fashioned. But phenomenology also reminds us that these constructions themselves are always in danger of becoming imperatives, rationalities, epistemologies, and ontologies that need to be bracketed, deconstructed, and substituted with more reflective portrayals.
- Max van Manen, Phenomenology of Practice (13).
Notes & Further Reading
On the topic of ‘lived experience’, Gadamer’s extensive discussion of ‘Erlebnis’ in his Truth & Method is instructive (53-61). See also Wilhelm Dilthey’s ‘Goethe and the Poetic Imagination’, in Poetry & Experience (223); Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, xvi-xvii. Max van Manen also emphasizes ‘immediacy’: lived experience “…is what presents itself directly and immediately” as if unmediated by thought/language/image, etc., as apodeictic. Edmund Husserl famously used the phrase “natural attitude” to describe our everyday lived experience, our ‘embeddedness’ in the apodeicticity of quotidian life. He provides a useful description of this basic attitude in the first book of his Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to A Phenomenological Philosophy (51).
On the topic of the ‘call and response’ structure of experience, see Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s discussion in the third chapter of the introduction to his Phenomenology of Perception (28-51).
For more on the topic of the ‘object’/situation constituting the subject’s experience, see Jean-Louis Chretien’s The Call and the Response and Gunter Figal’s Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy. Peter-Paul Verbeek (following Bruno Latour), gives objects particular primacy in his What Things Do (99-104, 113-9). In an article on Edmund Husserl (entitled ‘Edmund Husserl’), Dermot Moran, argues that this orientation can be found in Husserl’s notion of ‘motivation’ (32).
On the topic of how ‘naming something destroys it’, see Maurice Blanchot’s discussion in his article ‘Literature & The Right to Death’ is relevant (300-344). See also Sartre’s discussion of King Midas in The Imaginary. A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (175). Emmanuel Levinas says in his Totality and Infinity (45-6)—“[neutralizing] it… in order to comprehend or grasp it. It is hence not a relation with the other as such but the reduction of the other to the same” (45-46). Also see Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community (9-12), and his lecture ‘What is a Paradigm?’. Also see Gunter Figal’s Objectivity: The Hermeneutical and Philosophy (29-30). Hegel—in his System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of Spirit—said something similar: “The first act, by which Adam established his lordship over the animals, is this, that he gave them a name, i.e., he nullified them as beings on their own account, and made them into ideal [entities]” (221-2).
Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that the phenomenologist must remain a “perpetual beginner” in the introduction to his Phenomenology of Perception (lxxviii).
On the topic of the criticality of phenomenology, this is the basic thrust of Michael Marder’s 2014 book, Phenoma-Critique-Logos: The Project of Critical Phenomenology, as well as Mark Vagle’s 2014 text, Crafting Phenomenological Research (see 109-46). A number of texts in critical phenomenology have been published in recent years. As an example, see 50 Concepts for a Critical Phenomenology (eds., Weiss et. al.).
On the topic of ‘truth’ in phenomenology, see Martin Heiddegger’s Parmenides. On the notion of ‘truth’ in both Husserl and Heidegger, see Thane Naberhaus’s article ‘Truth’.
Regarding the notion of the ‘presuppositionless’ starting point, see in David Detmer’s Phenomenology Explained (114-115); in Moran’s Introduction to Phenomenology, 126-127; Joel Smith’s Experiencing Phenomenology, 24-26. Iso Kern’s article, ‘The Three Ways to the Transcendental Phenomenological Reduction in the Philosophy of Edmund Husserl’, discusses three different ways to understand the reduction. Also see Shaun Gallagher’s Phenomenology, 60. Don Ihde, in his Experimental Phenomenology, calls the epoché and the reduction-proper hermeneutic rules “since they provide the shape or focus of the inquiry. Hermeneutic in its broadest sense means interpretation, and rules give shape to an interpretation” (17). Ihde's explanation of the reduction is simple (18-22). Sebastian Luft's article, ‘Husserl’s Method of Reduction’ discussion of Ernst Tugendhat's 1971 interpretation suggests that the most general interpretation of the reduction would be something like accepting the “correlation of consciousness and world as the minimal common denominator of any definition of phenomenology” (252). This is a good basic description of the basic stance of phenomenology: awareness is always already situated.
On the topic of the ‘reduction’, the “reduction proper” was the ‘official’ title was given in the first book of Husserl’s Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to A Phenomenological Philosophy (hereafter Ideas I; see esp. Section 61). Although introductory texts on phenomenology generally contain a section dedicated to the two moves of the phenomenological reduction, it is not true that all figures in the history of phenomenological philosophy have explicitly discussed it. As a famous example, Heidegger, in his Being and Time, refrained from using Husserl’s central names; Moran writes in Introduction to Phenomenology: “[Heidegger] does not refer to the natural attitude, to the epoché and reduction, to the notion of constitution.” Moran’s discussion of the epoché in the same book is instructive (148-152). Sebastian Luft, in his article, ‘Husserl’s Method of Reduction’, notes that Husserl himself had “developed several ‘ways’ into he reduction; in fact, a larger portion of research manuscripts consists in working out these different ways, the number of which remains open to debate” (247). Husserl, in his Ideas I refers at one point to phenomenological reductions (Section 56). Iso Kern’s article, ‘The Three Ways to the Transcendental Phenomenological Reduction in the Philosophy of Edmund Husserl’, highlights (what Kern identifies as) three of these ways. Anthony Steinbock in Phenomenology and Mysticism notes: “…Husserl did not propound one single intellectual activity accomplished once and for all under the rubric of the reduction but practiced a philosophical activity, sometimes with more clarity, sometimes with more obscurity, that he took up over and over and over again according tot he circumstances and intellectual bearing” (4-5). See Sebastian Luft’s article, ‘Husserl’s Method of Reduction’, for a concise discussion of Husserl’s different “paths into the reduction” (especially 247-250). See David Cerbone’s article, ‘Methods in Phenomenology after Husserl’ for Heidegger’s appropriation of Husserl’s ‘method’ (278-282).
On the topic of ‘motivation’ in Husserl, see Dermot Moran’s article, ‘Edmund Husserl’, 32. In Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, see 47-51. Merleau-Ponty describes motivation in the following way: “One phenomenon triggers another, not through some objective causality, such as the one linking together the events of nature, but rather through the sense it offers—there is a sort of operative reason, or a raison d’être that orients the flow of phenomena without being explicitly posited in any of them” (51, emphasis added).
On the topic of ‘language’ in phenomenology, see Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of “authentic speech” in his Phenomenology of Perception (200, 202-3, 183n6).
List of Works Cited
This article is a revised extraction of the first and second chapters of “Doing Phenomenology”, a thesis written by Balraj under the supervision of Dr. John Russon. This thesis was submitted to the University of Guelph (Canada) and published in 2016.
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