Phenomenological movement

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD075-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

4. Existential phenomenology

Existential phenomenology is not structured by the complex concern for reason and the theory of science so prominent in constitutive phenomenology. Existential phenomenology draws ultimately upon the mundane reflective-descriptive spirit of the Logical Investigations as well upon the intensified interest in the 1920s and 1930s in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the latter urging a new signification for the word ‘existence’. The immediate occasion, however, is a misconstrual of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. This incomplete masterpiece is actually not devoted to human existence but rather ‘fundamental ontology’.

The old word ‘ontology’ had been revived by Husserl to name eidetic accounts of objects and their regions; realistic phenomenologists continue that usage, and Husserl investigates the regional ontologies of nature, body, psyche and culture in Ideas II. Attempting to radicalize constitutive phenomenology, Heidegger’s work is ‘ontology’ because it explicates the Being of beings (Sein der Seienden) and ‘fundamental’ because it seeks grounds beyond the mundane regional ontologies recognized by Husserl. The work contains an ‘existential analytic’ of human being or ‘Dasein’, not for a philosophical anthropology but as a means to this fundamental ontology.

Dasein – also translated as ‘existence’ or, in the early French translations of Henri Corbin, réalité humaine – is the being where the world is disclosed and the being whose mode of being is to understand Being, to bring it and related matters to light through seeing rather than constructing, and to find words for such matters. Dasein, Heidegger says, is being-in-the-world. This is not the world referred to in the positive sciences that Husserl emphasized even in Die Krisis, but rather the world as a set of everyday concerns and purposes, the world in which equipment is used and talk goes on. Dasein finds itself thrown into a situation not of its choosing; it is concerned with the future; it is for the most part distracted; and, deep down, it is anxious before its most extreme possibility – its own nothingness. But Dasein can heed the call of its own inmost possibility to live authentically and resolutely. Such terms were also used by Heidegger to support National Socialism during the 1930s, but they disappeared from his writing after the war, when he completed his turning (Kehre) from the oblique approach through Dasein to the direct thinking of Being.

Being was always Heidegger’s central issue. The third division of Part I of Sein und Zeit was to have gone beyond Dasein to show how the meaning of Being is time, but that division was not written, which made it even easier to construe the analytic of Dasein as philosophical anthropology, a construal that Heidegger emphatically challenged in his Brief über den ‘Humanismus’ (Letter on Humanism) (1947).

Hannah Arendt was influenced by Karl Jaspers as well as Heidegger during the 1920s, and is thus arguably the first existential phenomenologist, even though her contributions to political theory and problems of ethnicity, such as The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), only appeared after the war. It is also arguable that existential phenomenology appears in Japan with Miki Kiyoshi’s Pasukaru niokeru Ningen no Kenkyu (A Study of Man in Pascal) (1926) and Kuki Shuzou’s Iki no Kouzou (The Structure of Iki) (1930). Chiefly, however, the existential tendency developed in France during the 1930s. The early Emmanuel Levinas interpreted Husserl and Heidegger together and helped introduce phenomenology into France and overall has more in common with the existential than with the other tendencies. Gabriel Marcel reflected upon fidelity, having, hope, promising and so on; opposed intellectualism and ‘objectivity’; and emphasized the embodiment, finitude, sensuousness and situatedness of existence in the world. His chief interest, however, independently paralleling Heidegger, is in Being as the ground of existence. Like Arendt, Sartre and Beauvoir, Marcel was not a professional academic and often wrote for general audiences.

The background influences on phenomenology in France in the 1930s also included Scheler, the rediscovered early and humanistic Marx, and especially Hegel as presented by Jean Wahl and Alexandre Kojéve, who both argued for extensive convergencies between the phenomenologies of Hegel and Husserl. The issues of finitude, freedom, history, negation and individual and group conflict became prominent for Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, who led the classic period of French phenomenology.

Jean-Paul Sartre studied Husserl and began to write on the ego, imagination and emotion in the mid-1930s, soon also studying Scheler and Heidegger. His L’être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) appeared in 1943. Sartre’s approach relies on reflection upon, and eidetic description of, types of intentionality and objects as they present themselves, and he produced concrete analyses of many matters, for instance, historicity, authenticity, situation and especially individual freedom, which, for him, is the source of meaning and value. Human reality is what it has chosen to be, for existence precedes essence. In later work Sartre’s emphasis on freely choosing individuals declined, he became doubtful about phenomenology’s ability to explain historical conditioning, and turned to the writings of Marx.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty did pursue an academic career and chiefly wrote for fellow academics. He found many insights in science – especially cultural or human science, psychology in particular – but, like other existential phenomenologists, he opposed objectification and categorization and emphasized the ambiguous, concrete, contingent and particular. Against the early Sartre, he considered human freedom to be limited by its situation. In his main work, Phenomenology of Perception, he was concerned not with pure consciousness, but rather with human existence as embodied perception (or behaviour) in the world, and with how what is perceived has, for subjects, inherent structures of the sort described in Gestalt psychology and Aron Gurwitsch’s work (see Gestalt psychology and Aron Gurwitsch §2). While the body can be objectified in science, it is originally lived as subjective, and art, language, the other, politics, sexuality, space and so on, are to be analysed in relation to it. Merleau-Ponty died having composed only part of his body-focused ontology.

Simone de Beauvoir, often too closely associated philosophically with Sartre, is the third leading French existential phenomenologist. She likens existential conversion, a suspending of will in order to grasp the conditions of one’s life, to Husserl’s transcendental epoché; appreciates Heidegger’s concern with the future, but finds change rather than being-toward-death central; and accepts from Merleau-Ponty that the human body is historical, denying, however, that a woman is her reproductive or sex-object body. For her, phenomenology is centrally concerned with friendship, as her autobiography and letters show, and also with age, class, ethnicity, gender, oppression and liberation. Beauvoir inspired the second wave of feminism with Le deuxième sexe (The Second Sex) (1949), opposing the myth by which categories defined in contrast with male categories are imposed on women; analysing the lived experience of meaning in feminine being-in-the-world; and urging that females are not born but become women (see Feminism).

Existential phenomenology spread widely from France. It was also extended to the human sciences, beginning with work in The Netherlands and Flanders during the 1950s, and has been represented in the United States by Maurice Natanson and in a structural version by Bernhard Waldenfels in Germany. It was eventually eclipsed by structuralism in France, but became central to the vast expansion of phenomenology in the United States that began in the 1960s – where the relevance of existential phenomenology for new problematics, such as feminism, is increasingly recognized (see Existentialism; Existentialist ethics; Existentialist theology).

Citing this article:
Embree, Lester. Existential phenomenology. Phenomenological movement, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD075-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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