Existential Phenomenology


Existential-phenomenology is at first a mouthful of jargon, but it is also a convenient and conveniently descriptive term for a way of thinking about how best to keep HUMAN EXPERIENCE at the center of our concerns.  In education it refers to connecting the experience of individuals to course content and scholarly analyses.  As ART & ORGANISM unfolds, I hope you will feel how our investigations of the interplay of art and biology relate to you personally.. 

      This philosophical position is EXISTENTIAL because it is places emphasis on the problems of existence of REAL individuals in the real world:

      “The proposition that existence precedes essence (Frenchl’existence précède l’essence) is a central claim of existentialism, which reverses the traditional philosophical view that the essence (the nature) of a thing is more fundamental (because of its putative immutability) than its existence (the mere fact of its being).

        To existentialists, human beings—through their consciousness—create their own values and determine a meaning for their life because the human being is not born with any inherent identity or value. That identity or value must be created by the individual.  (and see Wikipedia for a friendly definition)



Take for instance a man driven to incessant work by a sense of deep insecurity and loneliness; or another one driven by ambition, or greed for money. In all these cases the person is the slave of a passion, and his activity is in reality a “passivity” because he is driven; he is the sufferer, not the “actor.”

On the other hand a man sitting quiet and contemplating, with no purpose or aim except that of experiencing himself and his oneness with the world, is considered to be “passive”, because he is not “doing” anything.

In reality, this attitude of concentrated meditation is the highest activity there is, an activity of the soul, which is possible only under the condition of inner freedom and independence.”

(Erich Fromm , The Art of Loving )

      It is PHENOMENOLOGY because it is the systematic study of the structures of individual’s experience of phenomena (including of one’s self) and of  consciousness.  


The ecologically-sensitive scholar Ted Toadvine characterized phenomenology succinctly in an essay on environmental ethics “… as a philosophical tradition [that] originated with the work of Edmund Husserl and was subsequently advanced by numerous thinkers, most notably Max Scheler, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida. Many of phenomenology’s perennial concerns have a bearing on environmental ethics, including value theory, subjectivity, embodiment, nature, animality, and technology, and since the 1980s environmental themes have been an explicit focus of phenomenological research.

Phenomenology’s diversity makes it difficult to generalize about its doctrines, but it does have a narrative consistency and family resemblance of philosophical commitments and argumentative styles. These include its pursuit of philosophy as a practice that radically sets aside the assumptions of the historical tradition, common sense, and scientific explanation in order to describe in an unprejudiced fashion what is experienced, the “phenomena.” (Toadvine 2016)[i] 



In the existential phenomenologically-informed classroom, I am speaking to YOU …and to be authentic, I am speaking from my heart and representing course content in terms of what it means to ME … see FINDING EACH OTHER IN THE CLASSROOM

In a recent book I tried to summarise key ideas in this area:  as an ethologist I have always sought to look at REAL ANIMALS IN THE REAL WORLD (rather than lab animals in a laboratory or some other unnatural environment).  This resonates strongly with my view of phenomenology: REAL INDIVIDUALS IN THEIR REAL WORLDS.   A chapter I developed in that book speaks to DEEP ETHOLOGY and PHENOMENOLOGY: please read “GETTING DEEP,” written to speak to other teachers.

To get started, I recommend a paper (TLP 1989) that was originally written to keep EXPERIENCE at the center of consumer research — this is not nearly as remote from our interests as a first glance might suggest.  It characterizes existential phenomenology … “as  a  paradigm  for  studying  consumer  experience. A paradigm refers to a group of researchers shar­ing common  assumptions about the nature of reality, utilizing  common   methodologies, and  dealing  with similar  problems (Kuhn  1970). Adherents  of a paradigm have both a philosophy  of what the world is like and  investigative  methods  deriving  from  that  perspective.  Existential-phenomenology is a  paradigm that blends the philosophy  of existentialism with the methods  of phenomenology (Valle and  King 1978).   The result is a contextually based, holistic psychology that  views human  beings in non-dualistic terms and seeks to attain a first-person description of experience (Giorgi 1983).  [go to Thompson et al 1989]  

A rich composite of resources is at the Existential Phenomenology page  of Mythos & Logos website organized by Brent Dean Robbins.


THE DIVIDE BETWEEN SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE is at the center of many of our concerns: an early thread that became woven into our thinking about real vs. ideal was provided by the psychiatrist/philosopher Karl Jaspers:


Jaspers moved away from psychiatry: first to psychology, then to philosophy. From 1919 onwards, he both taught and wrote on more overtly philosophical topics, bringing them into conversation with psychology. This is clear in his book Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (1919), or ‘The Psychology of Worldviews’, a transition work between psychology and philosophy. … The importance of this text for his thought is that it introduces one of his most influential ideas – that of boundary or limit situations (‘Grenzsituationen’). These are situations in which the subject experiences dread, guilt and anxiety, where we experience a lack of unity and stability: ‘everything is fluid, is in the restless movement of being in question, everything is relative, finite, split into opposites, never whole, absolute, essential,’ as Jaspers put it. Although a negative experience, these situations allow the human consciousness to confront its limits and restrictions, and move beyond them.


Faced with a boundary situation (which here includes death, suffering, chance and guilt), Jaspers wrote that:

“the actual – thinking, feeling, acting – human stands, so to speak, between two worlds: before him the realm of objectivities, behind him the powers and abilities of the subject. His situation is determined from both sides, before him the object, behind him the subject, both infinite, both inexhaustible and impenetrable. On both sides lie decisive antinomies.”    MORE[1]



[[1]] “…in his book Psychologie der Weltanschauungen (1919), or ‘The Psychology of Worldviews’, a transition work between psychology and philosophy. In this book, he sought to lay out and explore basic psychological dispositions and mental attitudes. Human mental life is constituted by a division between the subject and the object, and our other antinomical worldviews spring from this original antinomy. Those worldviews and their construction are not neutral, and the task of human existence is to come up to the limits of our worldviews, and be able to confront and choose more authentic possibilities.”


from notes for DEEP ETHOLOGY of PHENOMENOLOGY, a chapter in K. Greenberg et al. (Routledge 2018)
  • Is the SELF always and necessarily IMPLICIT? 
  • The Problem of Phenomenology. At its deepest levels—which are in any event inaccessible except perhaps by intuition—phenomenology as we pursue it is suspect: How can we know the mind of another when we barely (if at all) know our own?  In the extreme, how can we be confident of anything after it has been filtered through our senses and adjusted to accommodate our percepts[i] which are themselves profoundly affected by our individual uniqueness, impossible to exist similarly in another individual.   We have these congenital acquired biases, not the least of which is ● to be suspicious of isolated phenomena and outliers as likely perceptual slips, and ● to devise interpolations or extrapolations as needed to make a coherent story—theory—more satisfying—an aesthetic litmus test or index of truth. We slip into skepticism and can enjoy the Gorgian trope devised to parody Parmenides view that thought alone is real and reveals that “all is one” :  ● Nothing exists;Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others. Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.[ii]
  • Consonant with Sartre’s putting exisitence before essence [iii]—the real before the ideal—Merleau-Ponty envisions the body and perception as our articulation with existence, and his approach to descriptive psychology has laid much of the groundwork for the naturalizing of phenomenology, the principle topic of this chapter in our book.
  • Phenomenology Defined.  The incredible power of words to crystalize a constellation of connected ideas is one of our species’ happiest discoveries.   While many words are abandoned when they are applied in such diverse ways that their various applications create more confusion than clarity (I am often reminded of the expression, ignotum per ignotius“the unknown by the more unknown”), we hope we can save “phenomenology.”   In recent decades phenomenology, although manifest in sometimes contentious form, has nevertheless done the work of distancing us from a sterile mind/body dichotomy and has emerged as the philosophy of connectedness, epitomized by the concept of embodiment.  The scholar that has dominated the field is Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose magisterial Phenomenology of Perception (1945) is foundational, and complemented by many other writings and climaxed in the posthumously published, The Visible and the Invisible (1964 trans 1968)[iv],  in which he introduced “chiasm,” the intertwining and the belief that the body which lies between the seer and the seen is a constitutive part of meaning …

WORDS can do the heavy lifting, but they cannot say it all.  There are always other connections that can be discovered or invented.   Sometimes words cannot say much at all.  Mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell’s observed that “…the best things cannot be told.” [v]  and Ludwig Wittgenstein [vi] (one of the great philosophers of the 20th century —Stanford Encyclopedia),  famously stated, “Whereof  one  cannot  speak, one  must  remain  silent.”  (These words concluded the one book completed in his lifetime, the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” 1921).  

    • Of course, imperfect beings cannot be so confident, but the pursuit of such knowledge is a motivational trope so deeply engrained that it is almost undetectable except by naturalistic observations of easy-to-see cases at one end of a spectrum of possibilities. Little matter if certainty is a false flag—we pursue it because it enlarges our relative competence.  So arguably, the pursuit itself  is highly adaptive.   We cannot be so confident—and biologists steeped in evolutionary theory would not be surprised.  Adaptive success in the real world is a matter of meeting more-or-less urgent biological survival needs—the most urgent of which is legacy.  And in this, memes are as important as genes.  We need not be perfect, just better than our nearest competitor for a needed but limited resource—food or facts—which, depending on our context, may give us the advantage we are wired to seek.
    • We care if our bedrock facts are the same for everyone because we are wired to communicate with as little ambiguity as possible.  We are pretty sure that if we drill deeply enough we will find common ground. The deeper we get, the more shared it seems—whether the hierarchy of needs (sensu Maslow) or levels of organization.
  • THE SENSE of EXISTENTIAL THREAT attends all profound change and its real or perceived threat to homeostasis and the meeting of biological needs. (see A&O notes on change).  For example,  “In the course of centuries the naïve self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the centre of the universe [something infants learn ] but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness… the second blow fell when biological research destroyed man’s supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature… But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind.   — Sigmund Freud (1916)  Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalyis (in James Strachey (ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1963), Vol. 16, 284-5.)


EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY was Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s alternative to (or evolutionary version of) Husserl’s view of TRANSCENDENTAL PHENOMENOLOGY:

Transcendental and Existential Phenomenology.        “Whereas Husserl saw the task of transcendental phenomenology to be that o describing the lived world from the viewpoint of a detached observer, existential phenomenology insists that the observer cannot separate himself from the world. Existential phenomenologists followed out more rigorously the implications of the doctrine of intentionality of consciousness. Since consciousness is always consciousness of . . ., the world is not only the correlate of consciousness but that without which there would be no consciousness. Consequently, for existential phenomenology, the modalities of conscious experience are also the ways one is in the world. This shift of the notion of the Lebenswelt (lived-world) to the emphasis upon being-in-the-world expanded phenomenology in a way that allowed it to consider the totality of human relationships in the world in terms of the individual’s concrete existence.” (From David Stewart & Algis Mickunas, Exploring Phenomenology, pp. 64-65 cited by Brent Dean Robbins at http://mythosandlogos.com/whatep.html downloaded 6/30/2018)

According to Merleau-Ponty, “… the chief gain from phenomenology is to have united extreme subjectivism and extreme objectivism in its notion of the world of rationality.  Rationality is precisely proportioned to the experiences in which it is disclosed.  To say that there exists rationality is to say that perspectives blend, perceptions confirm each other, a meaning emerges. … the phenomenological world is not pure being, but the sense which is revealed where the paths of my various experiences intersect, and also where my own and other people’s intersect and engage each other like gears.” (Phenomenology of Perception. Preface p xxii. 1945, Trans 1958, Publ 1962 by Routledge & Kegan Paul, NYC)

Merleau Ponty speaks often of “The Primacy of Perception:”  “The perceived world is always the foundation of all rationality, all value and all existence.  This thesis does not destroy either rationality or the absolute. It only tries to bring them to earth.” (1964:13)  (The Primacy of Perception and its Philosophical Consequences.  (Chap 2. in The Primacy of Perception. (Originally in Bull Soc Francais Philosophie 1947); Trans 1964, Publ 1964 by Northwestern University Press) 

Pythagoras conceived that the first attention that should be given to men should be addressed to the senses, as when one perceives beautiful figures and forms, or hears beautiful rhythms and melodies. Consequently he laid down that the first erudition was that which subsists through music’s melodies and rhythms, and from these he obtained remedies of human manners and passions, and restored the pristine harmony of the faculties of the soul.

(Iamblichus of Chalcis in Life of Pythagoras)

“Merleau-Ponty repeatedly affirms the priority of perceiving, as, for instance, in his 1946 lecture The Primacy of Perception and Its Philosophical Consequences or in his masterpiece Phenomenology of Perception (1945), where he regards perception as our “primordial knowledge” of the real.” (Jakub Čapek.  Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Thinking According to Perception.  http://filosofia.flu.cas.cz/soubory/tituly/Capek_MP_summary.pdf  pp 345-349)

[i] This is where modes of reality-testing are relevant  –related to the transfer of information of sensation to percept to concept.  “The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes.… Percepts and concepts interpenetrate and melt together, impregnate and fertilize each other. Neither, taken alone, knows reality in its completeness…. The world we practically live in is one in which it is impossible (except by theoretic retrospection) to disentangle the contributions of intellect from those of sense.  –William James, Some Problems of Philosophy(1911: 51,52).

[ii] WHAT CAN WE KNOW?  Gorgias[ii] (Presocratic, d ~380) is the author of a lost work: On Nature or the Non-Existent. Rather than being one of his rhetorical works, it presented a theory of being that at the same time refuted and parodied the Eleatic thesis (that “thought alone” can arrive at the fundamental truth that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity…, it is by thought alone that we can pass beyond the false appearances of sense and arrive at the knowledge of being, at the fundamental truth that the “All is One”.].

  • Nothing exists;
  • Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and
  • Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.
  • Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.

[“The argument has largely been seen as an ironic refutation of Parmenides‘ thesis on Being. Gorgias set out to prove that it is as easy to demonstrate that being is one, unchanging and timeless as it is to prove that being has no existence at all. Regardless of how it “has largely been seen” it seems clear that Gorgias was focused instead on the notion that true objectivity is impossible since the human mind can never be separated from its possessor.”]    Also  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/intentionality-ancient/


[iii] The proposition that existence precedes essence (Frenchl’existence précède l’essence) is a central claim of existentialism, which reverses the traditional philosophical view that the essence (the nature) of a thing is more fundamental and immutable than its existence (the mere fact of its being).[1] To existentialists, human beings—through their consciousness—create their own values and determine a meaning for their life because the human being does not possess any inherent identity or value. That identity or value must be created by the individual. By posing the acts that constitute them, they make their existence more significant.[2][3]

The idea can be found in the works of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th century,[4] but was explicitly formulated by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th century. The three-word formula originated in his 1945[5] lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism“,[6] though antecedent notions can be found in Heidegger’s Being and Time.[7]”  (from Wikipedia, 10/2017)

[iv] Merleau-Ponty, Marice (1968) The Visible and the Invisible (translated by Alphonso Lingis, edited by Claude Lefort) from the French edition published in 1964) Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois.

[v] [ACADEMIC FACTOIDS: Born into immense wealth, Wittgenstein gave his share away  He began studies in aeronautical engineering but found more pleasure in philosophy … His mentor suggested another path, and so on Oct 18, 1911, he showed up unannounced at Bertrand Russell’s apartment in Cambridge.  Russell eventually described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius …”  … he served with distinction in WW-I (part of the time as a POW) and was profoundly changed by his experience.  His brothers committed suicide and he came close to it himself, but in 1951, dying of cancer, his last words were, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”]

[vi] Wittgenstein was a Modernist at least in so far as he distrusted linear ways of thinking and sought alternative ways of representation   (as you might expect from one inhaling the same atmosphere as Eliot and Joyce, Picasso and Kandinsky, Webern and Schonberg).