What is Existential Phenomenology?

 In History of Phenomenology

This post is the second in a series on the main branches of mature phenomenology.  You might want to start with the prior post about transcendental phenomenology if you have not already done so.

Husserl formulated the basic outline of the phenomenological method and also his own more specific methodology for this, which became the basis for the transcendental branch that was described in the previous section.  There were some thinkers who were inspired by the basic outline of this new discipline, but who nonetheless rejected some of the precepts that would be applied to the transcendental branch in particular but that didn’t necessarily apply to phenomenology in general.

Martin Heidegger, the most famous of Husserl’s students, conceived a different way of going about phenomenology that is focused on the exploration of the nature and meaning of existence.  In addition to prior phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger drew from several sources including existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.  Heidegger felt that Husserl’s transcendental approach was too theoretical, abstract, and insufficiently concerned with concrete human existence and the situations that we find ourselves living through.  Heidegger’s works detail his stream of consciousness as he went about trying to understand the fundamental question of the nature and reality of being.

Heidegger’s existential phenomenology has several notable differences from transcendental phenomenology.  Unlike Husserl, Heidegger did not see the need or the possibility of bracketing or epoche and he rejected the idea that one could suspend all preconceived notions.  Heidegger also resisted the idea that phenomenology could be a rigorous science.  As Dermot Moran wrote: “For Heidegger, phenomenology is the attempt to make manifest the matters as they manifest themselves.  As a radical allegiance to the things themselves, phenomenology can never be a single method”.

Whereas Husserl emphasized introspection as a way of understanding things in themselves, Heidegger instead preferred circumspection, which is the careful observation of one’s surroundings while going about daily life, mundane as it often is, and dealing with the occasional unexpected events that occur.  He argued that circumspection involves understanding which way one is oriented and understanding the most basic aspects of existence.  For Heidegger, experience is continuous and flowing and needs to be understood as a whole in the process of doing rather than through stepping back and thinking.

This process usually begins with when one is dealing with problems that arise in mundane, normal life.  One does not then withdraw and meditate and actively seek mindfulness as they would in the transcendental method.  Instead, a deeper meaning of existence is sought through active engagement with the world and through circumspection, wherein one might come to understand the relation between one’s self and the world, including how their body is related to the world and is an integral part of the world.  The inner tensions and angst can then be put into perspective, which can allow one to cope with the world into which they have been thrown.

Heidegger put these tools to use in his critique of modern philosophy, which focused primarily on the idea, articulated by Descartes and assumed by many others both before and after him, that humans are fundamentally rational beings.  He saw that the basic fundamental sense of human existence is pre-rational, pre-scientific.  It involves complex interconnections of lived experience that are not normally reflected upon nor analyzed, but that flow through our live constantly.

In his existential phenomenology, his focus was on what he called “Dasein”, which contained all of the aspects of self-reflective conscious experience that he thought were essential to this sort of being.  This can perhaps be understood as self-reflective first person experience, including the emotions felt while interacting with commonplace situations and including the occasional considerations for the meaning or purpose of one’s existence in the face of angst and anxiety, and also of concern or interest in one’s experience of their world, the totality of their known world, and the so-called authentic way of living.  He saw an inherent connection between care and authenticity.  We tend engage in activities and think about things that we care about, and doing so is authentic living.  Doing contrary to this is bad faith.

He sought to understand the concept of being and how it relates to time.  Prior to Heidegger, nearly all philosophers in the Western tradition had assumed that objects exist at instances in time and that as time moves forward these objects can either change or stay the same.  Heidegger argued that this preconception regarding the concept of being is mistaken and he used his version of phenomenology to argue that being cannot be separated from time.  It is not that an object exists at different instances in time, Husserl argued, but that the passing of time is an essential component of being.  An analogy he used is that it is not a hammer that constitutes being but hammering.  He used this conception of being to further address the nature of human existence.

Heidegger’s existential phenomenology influenced many thinkers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Hannah Arendt, who were influential in their own right.  Sartre focused on the concept of being in contrast with nothingness and contingency and what this means for human existence.  Sartre was concerned with real human situations and how the experience of emotions such as angst, nausea, and anxiety relate to human freedom.  Merleau-Ponty is notable for mixing existential and transcendental phenomenology, along with the psychological science of his time.  He used these tools in his analysis of perception and behavior from a first-person point of view, so as to understand the nature of embodied existence. He saw that the mind is thoroughly entangled with the body, conception with perception, and thought with feeling.  Merleau-Ponty used his embodied phenomenology, which can be seen as a variant of the existential branch, analyze the connection between perception and habitual behavior.  These insights have been used by therapists to help patients identify cause of the internal conflicts that might be happening within their body and/or in the relation between their body and the outside world.  Arendt studied and analyzed the phenomenological side of human action in the public realm.  Her focus was on the relation between common human experiences at the individual level and larger-scale public matters such as politics, labor, public action, and social life.

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