An Introduction to Phenomenology and Existentialism
What does it mean to exist? How do we live our lives meaningfully, if life has a meaning at all? In philosophy, these kinds of questions are called ‘existential questions’. They are the sorts of questions human beings may be inclined to ask when existence itself becomes a problem for them, while the answers provided by tradition have lost their persuasiveness. Existentialism is a subdiscipline of philosophy that reflects on such questions. In the 20th century, existentialism rose to prominence particularly in dialogue with another form of philosophy, namely phenomenology: the then prevalent form of philosophy in Germany, founded by philosopher and mathematician Edmund Husserl (1859-1938).
This close kinship of phenomenology and existentialism can hardly be called a coincidence. Phenomenology is, broadly conceived, the study of subjective experience. It is this subjective experience that the existentialists took as their starting point for considering the nature of human existence, and to address some of the urgent philosophical concerns that are connected to our existential situation, in particular our finitude, the meaning of life, and the problem of freedom.
To understand existentialism in its various shapes, then, requires a study of its relationship to phenomenology. Starting from Husserl, the father of phenomenology, this chapter introduces the reader to some of the most important themes discussed in both phenomenology and existentialism.
If you take a look around you, you will see all sorts of things: perhaps a desk, a coffee mug, your computer, and so on. All these things present themselves to you as being real. That is, in ordinary perception, you seem to have immediate access to those real things out there. You can see them, feel them, smell them – there is hardly a good reason, at least under usual circumstances, to doubt that these things are really there. The totality of the things that we thus perceive constitutes what we normally call ‘reality’.
Reality in the sense of the world of real things around us has been the object of scientific and philosophical study for centuries. Put simply, biology studies organisms, physics laws of matter and motion, neuroscience the brain, and so on. According to Husserl, all these sciences overlook something important – even more important than what their own respective domains contain – namely subjective experience. Consider again the objects that surround you. Indeed, you see them; they present themselves to you as real. But reflection shows that this ‘reality’ is ultimately nothing more than a ‘sense of reality’. You don’t access these real things from outside of your experience; there are incessantly given through it. Things therefore ‘present’ themselves to you as real in your experience; their ‘reality’ turns out to be nothing more than a type of presenting in your experience. We could call this ‘presenting as real’, and contrast it to ‘presenting as not real’, which then applies, for instance, to freely imagined objects, or hallucinatory objects.
Like many German philosophers of the century before him, Husserl took this thought seriously. In phenomenology, there can be no object without subject. In other words, phenomenologists believe that reality must be understood from within the order of the conscious experiences of subjects. To ask what the world would be like independently of our experiences, is regarded as futile and meaningless.
Husserl even took this insight one step further. According to him, science and philosophy before him, as well as all our everyday behaviour, take place in what he calls the ‘natural attitude’. This term refers to our ordinary way of experiencing the world, which is characterized by the naive acceptance of an independent reality of things. Put differently, our ordinary experience so expertly erases its own traces in presenting us things outside of us, that it makes itself invisible in this process. In other words, we forget that our experience accomplishes our ordinary sense of reality. According to Husserl, this trick is so skillfully performed that it has taken Western philosophy thousands of years to finally step out of it, and to see that reality is actually something ‘constituted’ in experience.
The phenomenological method commences with the attempt to systematically outline a way for an individual to take in an alternative position to the natural attitude. Generally speaking, this method is called ‘phenomenological reduction’. Husserl’s ambition is to develop a science of our experiences, phenomenology, that is more radical than the regular sciences since it breaks free from the natural attitude. The phenomenological method that is to accomplish this new science involves three steps.
First, (i) the phenomenologist has to be truly honest. He or she has to describe the way in which things unfold in experience (whether natural things in the external world, imagined objects, mathematical objects, and so on – whatever passes before the mind) without reference to any convictions that do not form a part of the experience itself, such as scientific theories, religious beliefs, and also the belief in the existence of the world in general. This step is called ‘epoché’, a kind of bracketing or suspending of beliefs and theories which are extrinsic to the experience. The epoché is a radical procedure that cannot be learned overnight; it involves suspending everything one has learned from science, for instance, regarding the impact that natural objects have on the human body, and even the belief in the existence of the mind-independent world. After the epoché, one would be left with nothing but ‘pure experience’ (which still includes the objects experienced, but now purely as experienced).
Second, (ii) the phenomenologist would have to find the right words to describe what is thus observed. This is particularly difficult and problematic, since most of our language derives from the natural attitude. For instance, when we describe the colour red that is at the end of the visible spectrum of light, we do not describe it as we experience it purely when looking at a red object. To do so, the phenomenologist must invent a new vocabulary to describe the experience. While this is a challenging task, Husserl and his colleagues did make serious headway in the creation of a new terminology.
Thirdly, (iii) the phenomenologist should not just describe whatever happens to pass by in his or her mind, but instead try to universalize statements about this. For instance, I won’t describe how a desk appears to me in perception, but instead how any perceptual object in general is bound to appear to anyone in perception. Put differently, while I might start from just any particular perception (or imagination, calculation, etc., depending on the type of mental act I’m studying), I will try my best to generalize my claims so as to make them valid for a whole class of mental acts. This way, claims about ‘subjectivity’ can gain ‘objectivity’, in the sense of a universal character that makes them valid for everyone. The operation by which we thus arrive at the essence of a phenomenon, as for instance the essence ‘perceptual object in general’, is what Husserl calls ‘eidetic reduction’.
More generally, most of the phenomenologists after Husserl are skeptical about the possibility of performing any of these steps perfectly. For instance, Heidegger (in Being and Time) and Merleau-Ponty (in Phenomenology of Perception) performed some kind of epoché as well as eidetic reduction. That is to say, first, that they did engage in the practice of some form of phenomenology through an epoché. Like Husserl, they are critical of the natural attitude, and seek instead to describe simply how things appear to us. Second, they seem to perform something akin to an eidetic reduction as well, as they often make claims that pertain to human existence in general, rather than just to their own personal existential situation. However, unlike Husserl, they dispute the possibility of performing either reduction perfectly. For them, no description of experience is ever completely pure and unbiased.
For phenomenologists, all objects are ultimately experienceable objects, such that there is no Kantian ‘thing in itself’. For this reason, Husserl thought that the phenomenological study of experience was the only true ‘first philosophy’. Since the world studied in science is only given through experience, the study of experience – phenomenology – has absolute priority over all the other sciences. Moreover, all philosophical problems could be resolved simply by accurately describing how things unfold for us in experience. All theory and argumentation is just a distraction from the pure experiences.
In focusing on human experience, the phenomenological approach in philosophy led many subsequent philosophers to consider human existence in more detail. In the next sections, we will look at some aspects of this existentialist turn in philosophy, and how they shift focus to concerns over mortality, the meaning of life, and freedom.
Let’s start again by taking a look around. Suppose once more that among other things, you see a desk, a coffee mug, and your computer. Now that I’ve brought your attention to these things, they appear to you as standing over-against you. It seems that they will remain to be there independently of whether you’re actually there to see them or not. They stand before you dryly, silently, and unmoving, as the collection of inanimate objects they are. However, just before you had turned your attention to them, these things were of course already present to you, albeit in a very different way. Before, you did not consider them explicitly: you may have been occupied with them – occasionally drinking coffee from the mug, and checking Facebook on your computer. You were using these things, absorbed in your practical activities – but strictly speaking you were not considering them as the things which they have become now that your attention has shifted to them.
Following Heidegger’s influential existentialist phenomenology in Being and Time (1927/2012), things have two modes of being: ‘present-at-hand’ and ‘ready-to- hand’. That is to say, they either appear as objective things (roughly speaking, as in Husserl’s natural attitude), or they appear in practically meaningful relations to us. The thing in its practical way of appearing (the ready-to- hand) is also called ‘tool’. In this sense of the word, anything can become a tool by appearing as ready-to-hand. This distinction is to some extent comparable to what contemporary philosophers sometimes call ‘knowing- how’ versus ‘knowing-that’. While you know that the coffee mug is an object used for drinking coffee from, you also know how to use the mug in order to practically facilitate the drinking of coffee. The first type of knowledge could also be called theoretical knowledge, the second skillful knowledge. Heidegger’s phenomenology gets its first existential impetus by arguing that human beings are always already involved in practices. This means that, in waking life, you’re not just continuously using things, but those things in their being used refer to your ongoing actions and preferences as well as to other things ready-to-hand. This constitutes a so-called ‘context of significance’. For instance, before anything becomes present-at-hand to you, the coffee mug presents itself as a drinking tool. But the mug as tool-object also bears a relation to the coffee machine – again not an objective (present-at-hand) relation, but as a practical relation. You, the coffee mug, and the coffee machine can be said to belong to one holistic context of significance, and importantly, they do so before we start thinking about or reflecting upon coffee, mugs, or machines.
According to Heidegger, the existing human being (by him famously called Dasein) always finds itself already involved in some context of significance, whether we realize it or not. This further means that, whenever we interpret the world objectively (as present-at-hand), be it in sociology or in theoretical physics, we do so from within a certain practice. Indeed, all our interpretations are inevitably colored by the practical circumstance we’re in. This constitutes a clear hermeneutical element of Heidegger’s phenomenology, which isn’t found in Husserl’s: namely that all human knowledge is a practically constrained interpretation.
Heidegger claims that this involvement in practices which defines the human standpoint is inevitably shaped in various ways by time (hence the word ‘time’ in his main work Being and Time). First of all, our past plays an important role in determining our existential situation. For Heidegger, in contrast to Husserl, it is mainly the past as history that determines human existence. For instance, I was born in the late twentieth century. Had I been born in the 16th century, my thoughts, actions – indeed my whole existence – would have been fundamentally different. In this way, the human being is, prior to any choice on the matter, ‘thrown’ into history (to use Heidegger’s term), just as it finds itself ‘thrown’ into a particular practical setting each time it awakens to reflect upon things.
The future, however, also determines human existence. In the second division of Being and Time, Heidegger argues that our understanding of ourselves and the world is always done from the finite standpoint of mortal human beings. Human beings know that they will die. This is not just a negative feature of existence; it also makes the time that we do have meaningful. It is, for instance, a great joy to meet with old friends, but part of what makes this so special is that we won’t be able to keep seeing our friends time and again for all eternity.
Many philosophers have tried to gain insight into eternal truths; to transcend the finite human standpoint in order to achieve eternal knowledge, whatever they thought that would be. With its existential twist, that is to say, by focusing on the human being in the here and now, Heidegger’s phenomenology brings all knowledge back into concrete, finite, human existence. According to Heidegger, any understanding of the world is an interpretation from the standpoint of a finite temporality; of a subject engaged in a practice, thrown into history, and facing an inevitable death.
Heidegger’s phenomenology receives its second existential impetus from his account of the average human being’s existence and the possibility of authenticity. That is to say, while most of his philosophy outlines the universal human (practical) standpoint from which we encounter the world and each other, Heidegger divides human beings into those who occupy an inauthentic mode of existence and those who occupy an authentic one. Because of their social nature, human beings tend in their average everydayness to unreflectively take over the opinions of others. Whether in our taste of music or our political preferences, we tend to safely follow others rather than to truly develop our own perspective. In particular, this brings us to cover up the inevitable promise of our own death. Dasein flees from its own death; following the viewpoint of the masses, it pretends that death is something that won’t matter until the very end, or it acts as if death only concerns others, but not oneself.
For Heidegger, the fearful facing of one’s own being-toward-death allows one to transcend this flight as an inauthentic mode of being, and to take back one’s own life from the dominating opinions and superficial small-talk of the masses. Because my death is an inevitable possibility that I cannot avoid, and that nobody can take up in my place, facing it at the cost of fear can be a revelatory, individualizing experience. Certainly, it won’t change the fact that my existence is, as he famously calls it, ‘thrown’ and my knowledge fallible; I never will transcend the mortal standpoint. I will, in the end, continue to act in ways prescribed by my historical time and by others by whom I am surrounded. Furthermore, I will continue to inevitably find myself dwelling in one practical situation or another. Nevertheless, by taking back my own individual life by facing my inevitable death, my existence would gain a certain character of ‘resoluteness’, which would be typical of an authentic way of being. Perhaps more than anything else, this account of authenticity has shaped the philosophical subdiscipline of existentialism.
For the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), all the things that you currently see are there in a manner which he calls ‘being in-itself’. By this, he refers primarily to the ordinary objective existence of material (non-conscious) things around us, just as Heidegger had spoken of the present-at- hand. In his main work Being and Nothingness (1943/2003), this is contrasted with so-called ‘being for-itself’, which would be typical of human consciousness: the being which is given to itself. Sartre’s ontology is thus based on a simple distinction between non-conscious and conscious (in the sense of humans) beings.
In an earlier essay called ‘The Transcendence of the Ego’ (1937/1991), Sartre had already prepared the way for this division. Here, he argued that Husserl was wrong to think that experience or consciousness must involve something like a subject or ego. Instead, if we follow Sartre, consciousness relates to all sorts of things (desks, coffee mugs, computers), but it is itself wholly empty. This can be illustrated in the following way. On Sartre’s view, if you reflect upon your own consciousness, you will find nothing but just the things outside of you that you are conscious of; consciousness ‘itself’, on the other hand, is ‘nothing’.
It is this view on the nature of consciousness that motivates Sartre’s later theory of freedom. To be sure, human beings are in some sense material objects; they have physical bodies, and they constantly act in the physical world. Existentialists call this our ‘facticity’: the totality of concrete, unchosen facts that define one’s individual existence. However, our facticity notwithstanding, Sartre’s existentialism continues to ascribe a radical freedom to human existence. This freedom is radical in the sense that we cannot escape it (we are ‘condemned’ to it), but also in the sense that it is unlimited. This is best explained by a few examples.
One of Sartre’s famous examples to illustrate existential freedom is of a waiter working in a restaurant. As is clear from his particular way of speaking and gestures, the waiter is acting as a waiter. While the setting of a fancy restaurant may rightly motivate this person to take up a certain role, the waiter in this example loses himself in this role; he is trying too hard to be a waiter, and is thereby pretending to be something he is not. In a way, he could be said to pretend to be an object: namely a waiter, something with determinate qualities, styles of behaving, etc. In reality, however, according to Sartre at least, he is precisely not an object (a being in-itself), but a being-for-itself, and therefore he is free to determine himself. In other words: by pretending to be a ‘thing’ (waiter), this person would avoid the freedom to choose for himself who or what he really is. The waiter therefore acts in what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’ – his version of Heideggerian inauthenticity.
For Sartre, the example of the waiter should serve as an illustration of something many of us do all the time. Because our freedom to determine ourselves can be scary to face, we tend to lose ourselves in all sorts of roles prescribed to us by other people or by society – whether the role of a son, a mother, an academic, or something else. We make life easy for ourselves by playing out these roles, thereby falsely turning ourselves into things. For humans, however, ‘existence precedes essence’. While we can try to act out life in bad faith, making ourselves believe that we are things with clear ‘essences’, human beings are in the end condemned to the freedom to determine their own being.
For Sartre, in spite of the fact that motives may tempt one to act in one way or another, there always remains in the end a freedom ‘between’ motive and response. While it is true that we are determined by our past and present circumstances, human beings are still condemned to this freedom. A former gambling addict, when confronted with the opportunity to gamble in a casino, is again confronted with this freedom. The decision to stop gambling needs to be made anew time and again, because there’s always the free choice of starting again. A final, and similar, example: what’s scary about standing at the edge of a high building? On Sartre’s account, it’s not the distance that you fear – it’s the fact that you are always free to really make the jump.
Merleau-Ponty’s (1908-1961) existentialist account, likewise originating in dialogue with phenomenology, takes us into a very different direction. As we have seen, Sartre distinguishes human beings (the for-itself) from the world they live in (the in-itself). Merleau-Ponty, much more like Heidegger, is keen to avoid such a duality. However, instead of starting, as Heidegger did, from the practically engaged human being, Merleau-Ponty starts from the ‘lived body’: your own body as experienced by yourself.
This lived body might be said to replace what Husserl called pure consciousness and what Heidegger called Dasein, which formed their respective starting points of analysis. Following Husserl, Merleau-Ponty distinguishes the lived body from the objective body. While the latter is the body as an object (as considered in the natural attitude, or as present-at-hand), the former is the body as we live it; it is our point of contact with the world. For Merleau-Ponty as for Sartre, there is no little homunculus (little human being) locked away somewhere in a special place called the mind, from where it observes everything that happens. Instead, consciousness includes the lived body, and to a large degree is the lived body in its interactions with the world.
Even more so than Husserl and Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes the contact between our bodies and the world is shaped by habits, skill, and practices. This feeds into his existentialist account of human freedom. For Sartre, human beings were free in the sense that they can always transcend any factual situation, so that they are condemned to free choice. According to Sartre’s existentialism, there are obstacles to our freedom only where we have freely interpreted things as being obstacles for us. This is because, on his view, we are always free to give meaning to our own lives.
Merleau-Ponty’s existentialist views on freedom are different. According to him, Sartre’s conception of radical freedom is too abstract. As a consequence, it would not sufficiently account for the many ways in which our bodies constrain our freedom. For example, if a man is drowning, a bystander with no swimming experience will not feel the same degree of freedom and ability to save that person as an expert swimmer would. In the same way, someone raised to abide by the law and the customs of society will be much more reluctant, for instance, to steal something from the supermarket than someone who has not been thus raised. Finally, someone who is in great bodily pain can no longer, at some point, transcend that situation to again experience joy in life.
Sartre’s point, that there is always freedom ‘between’ the motive and the act, doesn’t seem to do justice to these observations. Perhaps the poor swimmer and the good citizen can entertain the options of saving the drowning man and stealing from the supermarket respectively. They can transcend their factual situations, and entertain all sorts of options in free thought. But, in the end, what good does this type of freedom do them? Like Heidegger, then, Merleau-Ponty reminds us of the finite nature of our existence, not just because of our historical situation, but also because of the limitations of our own individual bodies.
For the last time, let us consider the things experienced in our immediate environment. Perhaps, this time, there’s not just a desk, a coffee mug, and computer, but also a person sitting over against you. How does the experience of another person differ from the experience of mere things? According to the existentialist Emmanuel Levinas, the difference is what defines us as human beings.
The encounter with the other is one of the main themes of Totality and Infinity (2011), in which Levinas develops an existentialist ethical theory. According to Levinas, experiencing the face of the other is fundamentally different from all other human experiences. Ordinary things are objects for me, but I am no object for them. While I might do with objects as I please, the face of the other is neither controllable nor predictable. Moreover, the other is never wholly present to me; I cannot take in the other’s point of view. The thoughts, feelings, indeed the whole existence of the other is something I cannot genuinely gain access to; I am, after all, stuck to my own point of view. Therefore, the other is not something that belongs to my material world in the way ordinary objects do. Instead, in the face of the other, I encounter what Levinas calls ‘infinity’.
According to Levinas, the other’s gaze also makes a new kind of appeal onto me; it places a certain responsibility upon me that is absent in my interaction with ordinary things. Moreover, according to Levinas the subject only truly becomes subject thanks to the encounter with the other. This encounter is the starting point of our existence, which would otherwise be a mere dwelling in a world of things. It is also the basis of problems of human freedom and responsibility. Even the possibility of objective knowledge rests on the encounter with the other. After all, without others, there would be no shared norms by which to assess things; everything would be a matter of my own perspective.
For Levinas, the phenomenological description of the encounter with the other does not simply result in a particular ethical theory like utilitarianism, deontology, or virtue ethics. It is rather a meta-ethical theory that describes the conditions of any ethical reflection. Indeed, for Levinas, the description of the encounter with the other even amounts to a metaphysics, since for him the experience of infinity and the ethical appeal of the other come prior to any questions about knowledge, truth, or reality. After all, we only become questioning, individual human beings through the encounter with the other.
As we have discovered in this chapter, the ordinary things around us take on a new dimension in the phenomenological and existentialist philosophies we have considered. In phenomenology, only the subjective experiences of these or any other objects matter. Whereas sciences leap over the experience to focus solely on the objective thing taken as a real thing – something which phenomenology considers only as a type of experience –, phenomenology sticks entirely to the phenomena as experienced, whether of real things or otherwise. Thereby a whole new field of scientific inquiry is opened up, that aims at describing the general ways in which things appear to us.
Starting with Husserl, phenomenology became one of the central movements of 20th century Western philosophy, and it remains a dominant force in contemporary philosophy. Today, phenomenology finds a wide range of applications within the humanities, such as in the field of gender studies, but also within psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence.
To a large extent, existentialism grew out of a confrontation with phenomenology. The most important contributions to existentialism highlighted in this chapter were developed in response to Husserl. While existentialism is generally critical of the bigger ambitions of the phenomenological project, some form of phenomenological method remains central to the existentialist tradition. By using this method to reflect upon the human condition, existentialism has proven itself a branch of philosophy that offers thought-provoking reflections on the meaning of life, while also making significant contributions to metaphysics, ontology, and ethics.
Heidegger, M. (2012). Being and time (E. Robinson, Ed.; J. Macquarrie, Trans.). Blackwell Publishing. (Original work published 1927)
Husserl, E. (1960). Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology (D. Cairns, Trans.). Martinus Nijhoff. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-4952-7_1 (Original work published 1931)
Lévinas, E., & Lévinas, E. (2011). Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority (23rd printing). Duquesne Univ. Press [u.a.].
Merleau-Ponty, M. (2012). Phenomenology of Perception (D. A. Landes, Trans.). Routledge. (Original work published 1945)
Sartre, J. (1991). The transcendence of the ego: An existentialist theory of consciousness (R. Kirkpatrick & F. Williams, Trans.). Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1937)
Sartre, J. (2003). Being and nothingness: An essay on phenomenological ontology (H. Barnes, Trans.). Routledge. (Original work published 1943)