The term “phenomenology,” as it is used by Edmund Husserl and his disciples, designates first of all a principle of philosophical and scientific method. The usual method of natural science proceeds from a body of accepted truth and seeks to extend its conquest of the unknown by putting questions to nature and compelling it to answer. The phenomenological method adopts a softer approach. Setting aside all presuppositions and suppressing hypotheses, it seeks to devise techniques of observation, description, and classification that will permit it to disclose structures and connections in nature that do not yield to experimental techniques. It has been widely fruitful in psychology and the social sciences, as well as in epistemology and value theory.
Husserl, in his Logische Untersuchungen (1900-1901; Logical Investigations, 1970, 2 volumes), did much to advance general phenomenological studies. However, he had in view a specifically philosophical application of the technique that many of his associates did not completely grasp or failed to share. Ideas was written with a view to clearing up the distinction between phenomenological psychology, which he regarded as a legitimate but secondary science, and phenomenological philosophy, which, he was prepared to maintain, is the foundation of all science. When a sociologist or psychologist conducts a phenomenological investigation, he or she puts aside all the usual theories and assumptions that have governed research in that field, but he or she cannot shed all presuppositions (such as, for example, the belief in the existence of the external world, the constancy of nature). As Greek philosopher Plato saw, every science must proceed upon some assumptions—except philosophy. To fulfill its promise, the phenomenological approach must bring one at last to an absolutely presuppositionless science. Pure phenomenology, or phenomenological philosophy, is, in Husserl’s opinion, precisely that. It has long been the aspiration of philosophers to make their science an absolute one, one that rids itself of all presuppositions and stands with open countenance before pure Being. Husserl stands in this tradition.
Phenomenology is not to be confused with “phenomenalism,” a name sometimes given to extreme forms of empiricism, such as that of philosopher Ernst Mach, which maintains that nothing is real except sense-data. In fact, this is one of the misconceptions that phenomenology is designed to overcome. If the empiricists are right, the unity and order which one is accustomed to find in the world are not given in experience but put there by the activity of the mind. Genetic psychology, which seeks to explain the origin of various mental habits and responses, would therefore hold the key to understanding one’s whole view of the world. A good example is philosopher John Stuart Mill, who in his A System of Logic (1843) undertook to explain the force of syllogistic reasoning in terms of associationist psychology. Other positivists and pragmatists have attempted to create a psychological theory of knowledge and of valuation. Husserl argued, however, that the empiricists were wrong, that they did not come to their conviction about the absence of order and intelligibility in the pure data of experience by examining what is given there, but had it as an Idol of the Theater (to use philosopher Francis Bacon’s term). It follows that they have misconceived the task of psychology in supposing that it can discover in the mind laws that give rise to the meaning of the world and that it is incumbent upon one to set about developing new accounts of logic, knowledge theory, aesthetics, and ethics that stand on their own evidence. In place of psychologism (a misconceived psychology or science of the soul), what is needed, if justice is to be done to experience, is phenomenology (a science of phenomena, or appearances).
Husserl takes his place, then, in the forefront of those twentieth century philosophers who have...
(The entire section is 2,824 words.)