P for Phenomenology


            The limited purpose of this brief blog is to explain a major ambiguity in common understandings of the term “phenomenology”. It is not uncommon to read such phrases as “A phenomenology of globalization” or “The phenomenon of racism” or again “A phenomenological approach to inflation”. In such phrases, phenomenology is taken to be almost a synonym of description and indeed the texts that follow are usually just that, a mere description of the specific reality under study. There is nothing in the grammar and semantics of the English language that prohibits such an understanding of “phenomenology” and its variants. Given, however, that “phenomenology” is the name of a still relatively new and very revolutionary branch of philosophy, the least that can be said is that to understand phenomenology as the mere description of realities, in the manner of an artist or a would-be “neutral observer”, risks creating confusion.

            This ambiguity, and consequent confusion, is at least partly to be explained by the fact that phenomenology, as a branch of philosophy, does indeed involve description. The form of description practised in phenomenology is the description not of the given reality in itself but of the human experience of this same reality as it (miraculously, Husserl would say) occurs in consciousness. It is precisely this attention paid to the workings of perception, the senses, language, meaning etc. as experienced by a conscious subject that constitutes the revolutionary nature of phenomenology. There is nothing philosophically revolutionary about the mere description of given realities, that has been going on for a very long time…

            This profound ambiguity is also relevant for moral theology. Let us take the example of a thesis on racism. As we have seen, it is common and legitimate to include a chapter on “The phenomenon of racism” in which the author describes this reality, possibly through historical narration. A phenomenologist, in the technical sense of the term, could also write a thesis on racism. Her primary interest, however, would be in understanding the factors that go into the perception of (for instance) a black person as inferior. But again the understanding of perception in phenomenology is not as simple as in everyday discourse (anyone with doubts about this is invited to plough through the some 500 pages of Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception). A good portion of this book is dedicated to illustrating that perception is not what it is generally taken to be. In a word, the prudent moral theologian if determined to use the word “phenomenology” etc. should at least be aware of and explain the sense in which she is using this highly complex term.

p. Martin McKeever, CSsR

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