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date: 11 August 2020

Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

Phenomenology shares the conviction that the critical stance proper to philosophy requires a move away from a straightforward metaphysical or empirical investigation of objects to an investigation of the very framework of meaning and intelligibility that makes any such straightforward investigation possible in the first place. It precisely asks how something like objectivity is possible in the first place. Phenomenology has also made important contributions to most areas of philosophy. Contemporary phenomenology is a somewhat heterogeneous field. In general, this Handbook as a whole might function as a representative sample of what is currently happening in phenomenology, and make it clear to philosophers from other traditions that phenomenology, far from being a tradition of the past, is quite alive and in a position to make valuable contributions to contemporary thought.

Keywords: phenomenology, philosophy, objectivity, contemporary thought, meaning, intelligibility

To some extent, the aim of The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology should be self-explanatory: to include contributions by some of the leading proponents and practitioners in the field in order to provide the reader with a representative overview of the type of work and range of topics found and discussed in contemporary phenomenology. In contrast to such volumes as, say, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind or the The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Economics, however, the contributions in the present handbook are not unified in terms of their subject matter, but in terms of their methodological approach, which is indebted to and affiliated with a specific philosophical tradition. But is there really something like a phenomenological tradition, let alone a phenomenological method?

Opinions are divided. According to one view, phenomenology counts as one of the dominant traditions in twentieth-century philosophy, and is still a force to reckon with. Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) was its founder, but other prominent and well-known exponents include Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Given that phenomenology has been a decisive precondition and persisting interlocutor for a whole range of later theory formations, including existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and post-structuralism, it rightly deserves to be considered as the cornerstone of what is frequently and somewhat misleadingly called ‘Continental philosophy’.

Husserl is the founding father of phenomenology, but occasionally it has been claimed that virtually all post-Husserlian phenomenologists ended up distancing themselves from most aspects of Husserl's original program. Thus, according to a second competing view, phenomenology is a tradition by name only. It has no common method and research program. It has even been suggested that Husserl was not only the founder of phenomenology, but also its sole true practitioner.

In my view—which has also guided the editorial work on the current volume—the latter view is mistaken. It presents us with a distorted picture of the influence of phenomenology in twentieth-century and contemporary philosophy, and it conceals the extent to which post-Husserlian phenomenologists continued the work of the founder. Although phenomenology has in many ways developed as an heterogeneous movement with many branches, although, as Ricoeur famously expresses it, the history of phenomenology is the history of Husserlian heresies (Ricoeur 1987: 9), and although it would be an exaggeration to claim that phenomenology is a philosophical system with a clearly (p. 2) delineated body of doctrines, one should overlook neither the formative impact of Husserl's work, despite the at times rebellious rhetoric of his successors, nor the common themes and concerns that have united, and continue to unite, its proponents.

But what, then, is the core of phenomenology? Again, opinions differ, but we find one proposal in Phénoménologie de la perception, in which Merleau-Ponty declares that phenomenology is distinguished in all its characteristics from introspective psychology and that the difference in question is a difference in principle. Whereas the introspective psychologist considers consciousness a mere sector of being, and tries to investigate this sector in the same way in which the physicist tries to investigate his, the phenomenologist, according to Merleau-Ponty, has realized that consciousness ultimately calls for a transcendental clarification that goes beyond common-sense postulates and brings us face to face with the problem concerning the constitution of the world (Merleau-Ponty 1945: 72). The simplest way to understand Merleau-Ponty's claim is by acknowledging that phenomenology—despite all kinds of other differences—is firmly situated within a certain Kantian or post-Kantian framework. One way to interpret Kant's Copernican turn is by seeing it as amounting to the conviction that our cognitive apprehension of reality is more than a mere mirroring of a pre-existing world. Thus, with Kant the pre-critical search for the most fundamental building blocks of empirical reality was transformed into a transcendental philosophical reflection on what conditions something must satisfy in order to count as ‘real’. Phenomenology shares the conviction that the critical stance proper to philosophy necessitates a move away from a straightforward metaphysical or empirical investigation of objects to an investigation of the very framework of meaning and intelligibility that makes any such straightforward investigation possible in the first place. Rather than engaging in first-order claims about the nature of things (which it leaves to various scientific disciplines), phenomenology concerns itself with the preconditions for any such empirical inquiries. Thus, rather than contributing to or augmenting the scope of our positive knowledge, phenomenology investigates the basis of that knowledge and asks how it is possible. This is also why Husserl, just like Merleau-Ponty, would deny that the task of phenomenology is merely to describe objects or experiences as precisely and meticulously as possible. As Scheler once remarked, to reduce phenomenology to such an enterprise would be to make do with a ‘picture-book phenomenology’ (Scheler 1927, vii). This also highlights an important contrast with a good part of the preoccupation with phenomenal consciousness found in recent analytic philosophy of mind. The phenomenological interest in the first-person perspective has not primarily been motivated by the conviction that we need to consider the first-person perspective if we wish to understand mental phenomena. Rather, the phenomenologists’ focus on the first-person perspective has as much been motivated by an attempt to understand the nature of objectivity as by an interest in the subjectivity of consciousness. Indeed, rather than taking the objective world as the point of departure, phenomenology precisely asks how something like objectivity is possible in the first place. How is objectivity constituted? Thus—and this is yet another way of highlighting its transcendental preoccupation—phenomenology is not interested in consciousness per se. It is interested in consciousness insofar as consciousness is world-disclosing. (p. 3) Phenomenology should consequently be understood as a philosophical analysis of the different types of world-disclosure (perceptual, judgemental, imaginative, recollective, and so on), and in connection with this as a reflective investigation of those structures of experience and understanding that permit different types of beings to show themselves as what they are. By adopting the phenomenological attitude, we pay attention to how public objects (trees, planets, paintings, symphonies, numbers, states of affairs, social relations, and so on) appear. But we do not simply focus on the objects precisely as they appear. We also focus on the subjective side of consciousness, thereby becoming aware of our subjective accomplishments and of the intentionality that is at play.

It is not as if this transcendental focus is evident in each and every phenomenological analysis, and it is by no means highlighted in all of the contributions in the present volume; but it is, I would claim, essential to bear in mind if one is to understand the distinctive philosophical vision and ambition of classical phenomenology.

Phenomenology did not come to an end with the passing of Sartre and Heidegger. Much has happened since then, particularly in French phenomenology. Thinkers such as Emmanuel Lévinas, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion have all questioned the adequacy of some of the classical phenomenological investigations. In their attempts to radicalize phenomenology they have disclosed new types and structures of manifestation, and have thereby contributed to the continuing development of phenomenology.

During its history, phenomenology has made important contributions to most areas of philosophy, including transcendental philosophy, philosophy of mind, social philosophy, philosophical anthropology, aesthetics, ethics, philosophy of science, epistemology, theory of meaning, and formal ontology. It has provided ground-breaking analyses of such topics as intentionality, perception, embodiment, self-awareness, intersubjectivity, and temporality. It has delivered a targeted criticism of reductionism, objectivism, and scientism, emphasized the importance of the first-person perspective, and argued at length for a rehabilitation of the life-world. By presenting a detailed account of human existence, where the subject is understood as an embodied and socially and culturally embedded being-in-the-world, phenomenology has also provided important inputs to a whole range of empirical disciplines, including psychiatry, nursing, sociology, literary studies, architecture, ethnology, and developmental psychology.

The present volume does not focus on applied phenomenology—that is, on the kind of contribution phenomenology can make to various empirical disciplines, though this is an issue worthy of its own extensive treatment—but on the distinct contribution that contemporary phenomenology can make to philosophy.

A characteristic feature of much recent work in phenomenology is the extent to which it is developed in a continuing dialogue and conversation with the founding fathers of the tradition. During the initial discussions regarding the format and structure of the present handbook, it was, however, decided to not include scholarly essays that primarily focused on historical figures. To that extent, the aim of the volume is not to present the state of the art when it comes to studies of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and so on. In fact, the contributors were requested not to focus specifically on exegetical (p. 4) treatments, nor to provide overviews of existing results, but instead to articulate and further develop their own theoretical perspective. This is also reflected in many of the chapter headings.

The contributors are based in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the USA. In compiling the volume it was obviously necessary to make some choices. I found it important to include contributions by phenomenologists who during the past fifteen to twenty years have shaped and dominated the field because of their writings and their teaching at the universities of Bochum, Freiburg, Leuven, Paris, and Wuppertal, but who have hitherto remained less known in the Anglophone world. Other editors would most probably have made other choices, but I am confident that a large number of the contributors to the present volume would have been included in any handbook on contemporary phenomenology, regardless of who the editor would have been.

As the volume will make clear, contemporary phenomenology is a somewhat heterogeneous field. The different contributions differ widely in style and focus. Some are very much concerned with issues and questions typical and perhaps also distinctive of phenomenological philosophy, while others address questions familiar to analytic philosophers, but do so with arguments and ideas taken from phenomenology. Some offer detailed analyses of concrete phenomena, and others take a more comprehensive perspective and seek to outline and motivate the future direction of phenomenology. Hopefully, the volume as a whole might function as a representative sample of what is currently happening in phenomenology, and make it clear to philosophers from other traditions that phenomenology, far from being a tradition of the past, is quite alive and in a position to make valuable contributions to contemporary thought.

Let me end by thanking Peter Momtchiloff, at Oxford University Press, for originating the idea for this volume and inviting me to be in charge, and for himself being an ideal editor. I would also like to thank Claes Holmberg and Martin Grünfeld for helping me formatting the final version of the manuscript and Adam Farley for compiling the index.