Phenomenology: a beginner’s understanding

“Phenomenology is the attempt to discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience…[to] describe the emergence of being and…how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself.”

             Maurice Merleau-Ponty

The philosopher argues that while empiricism, psychology, and neurology (brain science was still in its infancy in 1951, and I think Merleau-Ponty would have been fascinated by current medical science involving brain studies) are valuable and offer insights into philosophy, they fail to uncover the origin of being. He also argued that philosophy could become less relevant if philosophers continued to ignore phenomena. Granted, many of us could not care less about the origin of being; but this philosopher claims there is no way to truth if the questioner does not recognize the limits of his or her own perspective first, including physiological limitations that earlier philosophers ignored. Because of radical, rapid developments in science and medicine during the 20th century, and the impact on medical and environmental ethics, Merleau-Ponty’s writing is significant today.

That for us in the quote above means within each individual’s perspective; that in-itself, derived from the Kantian ding an sich, means we possess the ability to ken that the other is unknowable even as we treat the other as an object empirically, physically, intellectually–hence the paradox. Those readers familiar with Kant will recognize similarities with noumenon.

One of Merleau-Ponty’s analogies involves a house. We name it: house. We perceive only one aspect of it in time: what is visible with our human eyes or our other senses. We see the front of the house while knowing the house has a back, sides, a foundation, and interior–none of which are visible to us simultaneously, given our physiology. Yet we are capable of believing (not merely assuming) that there are hidden facets to the house, the pipes, the insulation, electrical wiring for example. And we can believe in a world that embraces all of these facets, even what we cannot see, hear, touch but all of which we can “know.” The house can be a physical phenomenon, one I encounter with my physiological senses; and it can also be imagined by me (intellectually) whole or in part–the house for-me as opposed to the house in-itself–and the person next to me will experience the house for-her and even the house in-itself in a different way due to a whole spectrum of physiological, psychological, and intellectual perspectives. Are any of these perspectives “true”? Are any of them “false”? The facts of empiricism do not explain the mystery of our knowing what we cannot empirically know through induction. The hypotheses of intellectual philosophy do not acknowledge the being-here of the physical experience and the complex psycho-socio-neurological goings-on that make up cognition.

What appeals to me about phenomenology is its awareness that we are limited by our perspectives to the fields of our physical, physiological, psychological, and intellectual points of view–including the empirical, science and its “facts.” And yet, this philosophy admits of our ability to imagine beyond these limits, to speculate; we function amid apparent paradoxes such as the simultaneous existence of unity and monadic separateness, perspectives that overlap, interconnect, communicate with and relate to those other than our own perspectives (or phenomenological fields). Phenomenology accepts that the philosopher’s thinking must be conditioned by situation. Thus, if I understand it aright–and I may not–phenomenology admits of us being in the world-as-itself.


“Be here now,” as Ram Dass famously advocated in a book all of my friends had in their libraries in the 1970s.

Ram Dass' Be Here Now

Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’m over-simplifying. Yet I see a correspondence between the phenomenological approach and some aspects of (so-called) Eastern knowledge-practices/philosophies. The idea of consciousness as a network of intentions. The statement that “consciousness does not admit of degree.” The notion that actions and observations matter.

And now I am like the Zen practitioner…as far as phenomenology goes, I have “beginner’s mind.”

13 comments on “Phenomenology: a beginner’s understanding

  1. […] Phenomenology is the attempt to discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience…[to] describe the emergence of being and…how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty The …  […]


  2. KM Huber says:

    Regarding phenomenology. I, too, have “beginner’s mind” and now, yet another perspective. Truly, thank you.



  3. […] Phenomenology is the attempt to discover the origin of the object at the very centre of our experience…[to] describe the emergence of being and…how, paradoxically, there is for us an in-itself.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty The …  […]


  4. My first introduction to Phenomenology was courtesy of a VERY old John Carpenter movie called Dark Star. In it, a crew of astronauts are flying around the galaxy blowing up “unstable” planets. (It is never explained why they are doing this) To accomplish this mission they use these smart bombs that seem to possess some sort of rudimentary knowledge of their own existence. When one of them fails to detach itself from the ship, and is about to explode, one of the astronauts goes out to engage the bomb in a discussion about Phenomenology, in an attempt to make the bomb realize there’s absolutely no way it can truly trust it’s perceptions, therefore it has no way of knowing for sure that it’s supposed to explode. It counters with “If this is true, than I have no way of knowing you’re actually telling me this.” (I just realized I was about to give away the ending of the movie, AND I’m rambling. If you can get past the slow moving plot and VERY low budget “effects” it’s worth watching, if you can find it! (Especially the bomb scene.)


    • Wow, amusing and odd…just the sort of thing that intrigues me. The movie name rings a bell, but I have never seen it.


      • It’s become something of a cult classic. It was John Carpenter’s first movie. It was co written by Dan O Bannon, who actually appears in the movie as a hilarious character named Pinback. (Dan O Bannon wrote ‘Alien’ among other things.) If you get around to watching it, I’d like to hear (read) your thoughts.


  5. Emma says:

    Three lectures on phenomonology at university… You just made them understandable! Thanks!


  6. thegreatdoubt says:


    I have discovered through the comments and accusations of others that I have a phenomenological perspective. I am not particularly interested in pursuing a fulfillment of their perceptions, as I am in understanding what they are referring to. I am really rather philosophically naive and could benefit by from a sort of beginners guide to phenomenology….any recommendations?


    Bill W.


    • You could read Husserl, but he’s not really going to be easy going. You might try Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology. He’s not a proponent of the field but does a good job of basically explaining this branch of philosophy.


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