Philosophy Index

Existentialism & Phenomenology

The relationship between phenomenology and existentialism is a close one. Phenomenology shares several of the same ideas as its sibling, and the line between the two is often unclear.

Founded by Edmund Husserl, phenomenology is a philosophical model that was made to be free of presupposition. The idea is to study and describe objects and events from the position of observers, rather than to make claims about some objective reality. Anything that is not immediately concious is to be excluded. Rather than deductive or empircal methods, Husserl’s method was to rely on the information gathered by the senses and to throw away all scientific or metaphysical knowledge or beliefs in order to study phenomenon more accurately.

Phenomenology is sometimes compared to idealism, the metaphysical claim that all that truly exist are minds. Phenomenology does not make this claim. Instead, phenomenology merely focuses on the epistemological claim that all we know is our subjective reality, coupled with the normative claim that we ought to avoid the meaningless attempt to seek out some objective reality. The importance is placed on the subjective.

This importance on human cognition rather than belief or assumption is mirrored in existentialism. Albert Camus takes a phenomenological view to the world with his descriptions of knowledge:

This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world around me I can feel, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.

While the rest of philosophy is often focuses on how things are and how we are able or unable to perceive the truth in the world, phenomenology counts that our perceptions and internal experience are what matters. Existentialism mirrors this idea in its description of human nature. Psychologists, sociologists and philosophers alike have searched for so-called “truths” of human nature. Existentialism holds that there are no (or at least few) universal truths about human nature — the individual is what is important, and the individual is free to make his or her life in any way imaginable.

Together, existentialism and phenomenology move the focus away from facts about the world towards facts about the individual self. For phenomenology, that means changing the way we view metaphysics and epistemological claims. For existentialism, it generates a normative ethic on how to live a worthwhile life.

(Note: This is not the full scope of the phenomenological movement, but was meant only to explain its relevance to existentialism.)

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