Phenomenology and Social Theory

Harvie Ferguson. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Spirit has not only lost its essential life; it is also conscious of this loss, and of the fmitude that is its own content… and now demands from philosophy not so much knowledge of what it is as the recovery through its agency of that lost sense of solid and substantial being. (G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807)

The title of this chapter is deliberately disjunctive. The troubled relationship between phenomenology and social theory throughout the twentieth century renders dangerously misleading the seamless ‘phenomenological social theory’ or ‘phenomenological sociology.’ Indeed, if it were not for their short-lived union in the early writing of Hegel, it might well be judged advisable to treat phenomenology and social theory as two quite distinct and independent developments. For the most part shared indifference, interspersed with bouts of hostility, has characterized the relationship.

So, why raise the issue of their relationship at all? Because, first, in spite of mutual disdain, an important conceptual relation does exist here and, secondly, a tradition of genuine but implicit phenomenological social theory, though it has rarely made reference either to modern phenomenological philosophy or to the multiplying perspectives of a self-consciously theoretical sociology, has in fact emerged.

The Sovereignty of Experience

In common language the ‘phenomenal’ is exceptional, incredible, extraordinary; a distant recollection of the early modern preoccupation with those many ‘wonders,’ ‘curiosities’ and ‘monstrosities’ which stood on the margins of, and in stark contradiction to, the immanent order of Nature (Daston and Park, 1998). Without reason or purpose the ‘phenomenal’ just happened to exist. Throughout the modern period the region of fascinating monstrosities gradually shrank into nothingness while the sphere of an internally orderly and predictable domain of observable events expanded, in principle, to become coterminous with the infinity of empirical reality. There were no exceptions to Nature’s universality and necessity. But empirical reality was immeasurably complex so that Nature’s indubitable orderliness was expressed, as it were, in hidden and implicit ways. The phenomenal became the generally incomprehensible and ungraspable immediacy of actual existence in contrast to the intelligible order—the ‘noumenal’—to which the chaos of particular and individual events was ultimately reducible. Reality was identical to existence; but existence remained stubbornly incomprehensible. The phenomenal, that is to say, no sooner acceded to the dignity of autonomous and exclusive being than it lost itself in its own overwhelming abundance; and became ‘appearance’ in contrast to ‘reality.’

Not the least difficulty in understanding the philosophical movement known as phenomenology is the special sense in which this central term is used. In fact, and as distinct from any previous usage, phenomenology is that perspective within which no distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal can arise. The aim is neither to explain nor revalue the ‘phenomenal’ but, rather, to return being to the undifferentiated unity of actual experience. Friedrich Nietzsche, thus, expresses the founding insight of phenomenology with characteristic pithiness: ‘The antithesis “thing-in-itself” and “appearance” is untenable; with that, however, the concept “appearance” also disappears’ (Nietzsche, 1967: 298).

Phenomenology is an essentially modern perspective on the human world and it is the philosophical movement most closely associated with the twentieth century. Its origins—like all Western philosophical movements—can be traced in exemplary ancient texts and, more significantly, has roots in medieval Scholasticism. However, phenomenological writers themselves, are generally content to take their point of departure in the writings of Edmund Husserl; and Husserl himself repeatedly draws attention to René Descartes’ radical break with earlier philosophizing as the beginning of a decisively phenomenological perspective.

Husserl claims Descartes’ rejection of all previous philosophical authority as the foundational act of modern phenomenology. Descartes’ determination to doubt everything and accept as certain only that to which he was led by the exercise of his own reason, freely reflecting on its own experience, is not simply the methodological principle but (in nuce) the substantive content of the modern philosophical view of reality. Husserl recognizes the implication of Descartes’ method of systematic doubt to be the elevation of experience as the real subject matter, as well as the ultimate arbiter, of philosophical truth. In terms of philosophy, indeed, modernity simply means the sovereignty of experience. In this sense all modern philosophical movements are phenomenological, though prior to Husserl’s decisive thematizing of experience, they were so obscurely, being viewed as an important but external starting point for modern thought. The overthrowing of premodern authorities had been seen exclusively as an important social and political prelude to modern thought; its precondition rather than its genesis.

In general terms, then, for the modern view experience is the only source of knowledge and, because experience is not immediately lucid, it is simultaneously the very condition which makes knowledge necessary. Experience, that is to say, does not immediately offer itself as an indubitable guide to the world (including ourselves).

In its most general form, then, phenomenology is simply the ‘subjective turn’ which characterizes all modern thinking and brings clearly into awareness the insight that human consciousness is trapped in an endlessly self-referential system of representations; that consciousness is a system of signs. In a paradoxical fashion, however, modernity—as the sovereignty of experience-immediately divides itself into the mutually exclusive realms of subject and object; distinct forms of being which seem to deny, or to offer an escape from, the solipsism to which the ‘subjective turn’ otherwise seems condemned. Significantly, Descartes himself draws attention to the curiously disjunctive character of subjectivity. He points out, for example, that, in dreaming, the waking world is banished but reappears, so to speak, within the dream itself when we dream the difference between waking and dreaming; indeed, it becomes difficult to specify precisely the experiential difference between being awake and only dreaming that we are awake. This dualism between subject and object—albeit a dualism that falls wholly within a broader conceptualization of subjectivity—is foundational to modernity and is the framework within which phenomenology is formed, and with which it seeks to deal (Judovitz, 1988).

Two major traditions of modern thought, therefore, seek to grasp the entire world of experience, alternatively, from the point of view of objectivity or of subjectivity. The objective empiricist tradition seeks to explain consciousness as a (somewhat imperfect) mirroring device in which is reflected the real structure of the world of objects which exist independently and outside of our awareness of it. Consciousness is here viewed as an image of a world apart from and alien to our immediate self-presence as sentient beings. In contrast, the subjective idealist tradition seeks to interpret the world in terms of the inherent expressiveness of consciousness. The former is preoccupied with problems of validating knowledge, the latter with issues of the authenticity of feeling, but both strive to bridge the abysmal gulf between reality and appearance; the rupture in being which is at the heart of modern experience.

Importantly both empiricist and idealist traditions (unlike premodern conceptualizations of being) view reality as crystallized at specific points; being concentrates itself in the actuality of exterior bodies, or in the interiority of the personal soul or psyche. The modern ‘point-mass’ conception of reality—paradigmatically formulated in Newton’s mechanics and Rousseau’s literary psychology—grasps being as essentially individual and particular and treats all ‘higher order’ realities as the outcome of complex interactions of analytically and actually discrete, naturally occurring, individuals. These modern traditions are also at one in the essential dynamism of their characterization of reality. The empiricist tradition regards the ‘natural’ condition of a body to be uniform rectilinear motion; while, for the idealist tradition, the natural condition of the soul is held to be ideological self-development or growth.

It is important to note that Husserl (or for that matter Nietzsche) does not claim for his phenomenology (as Hegel had done for his) a final resolution or solution to this problem; he does not claim to reveal a transcendental meeting ground in which object and subject are ultimately reconciled in a ‘higher’ unity; rather he seeks to direct our reflection towards a consciousness prior to that differentiation. Equally, it is important to realize that this is not an appeal to any premodern philosophical position. Rather, it is only by taking seriously Descartes’ modern political demands (for the autonomy and authority of self-experience), as well as his novel philosophical ambition (the search for certainty), that Husserl is driven to reject the initial separation upon which modern thought had rested.

Husserl appeals to experience, and to the ultimate founding of certainty in self-experience, for philosophical clarity. Self-experience is independent of all external authority; ‘each of us bears in himself the warrant of his absolute existence’ (Husserl, 1931: 143). And in doing so rejects all hypothetical and theoretical constructions in favour of a return to ‘pure’ consciousness. In his view, both explanatory and interpretative schémas of consciousness are infected with doubt and gratuitous abstractions. Certainty rests neither on (constructed) appearance nor on (hypothetical) reality, but is given as phenomena.

Though now intimately associated with the work of one author, phenomenology, in its most general sense as the sovereignty of experience, permeates modern culture. In this sense, indeed, it might well be argued that the most distinctively phenomenological perspective, and one which directly challenged both scientific naturalism and romantic idealism, first found expression in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. What was so original and ultimately compelling in his fervent iconoclasm was the rigorous manner in which he made reflexive arguments against any conception of the experience of nature as terminating in simple pre-given ‘objects,’ to which a variety of attributes might be attached. For Nietzsche, the self-certain ‘subject,’ equally as the thingness of the ‘object,’ is a fiction. All is phenomenal multiplicity and flux:

I maintain the phenomenality of the inner world, too: everything of which we become conscious is arranged, simplified, schematized, interpreted through and through—the actual processes of inner ‘perception,’ the causal connection between thoughts, feelings, desires, between subject and object, are absolutely hidden from us—and are perhaps purely imaginary. (Nietzsche, 1967: 264)

‘Inner experience,’ therefore, is no more immediately graspable than is the remoteness of ‘external reality’; indeed, it ‘enters our consciousness only after it has found a language’ (Nietzsche, 1967: 266).

In a properly phenomenological perspective all such crystallized forms dissolve:

At last the ‘thing-in-itself’ also disappears, because this is fundamentally the conception of a ‘subject-in-itself.’ But we have grasped that the subject is a fiction. The antithesis ‘thing-in-itself’ and ‘appearance’ is untenable; with that, however, the concept ‘appearance’ also disappears. (Nietzsche, 1967: 298)

Nietzsche’s unorthodox and often bewildering style as well as his marginal position in relation to academic institutions allowed his astonishing insights to pass into the general culture without academic comment. His influence, for many years unacknowledged, was none the less enormous and there is a sense in which the whole development of contemporary phenomenology takes place in dialogue with his submerged presence. In relation, however, to the emergence of Husserl’s (stylistically austere) foundational works anticipatory hints of the direction of phenomenology can be traced in the less spectacular writings of his immediate teachers and academic predecessors.

Hermann Lotze, for example, in his Micro-cosmus (1885), anticipates in a less radical fashion some aspects of a new phenomenological attitude. He talks of experience as ‘boundless in the wealth of its forms and events, unknown in its origins’ (Lotze, 1885: 417). Still restricted to a subject/object conceptualization of experience, Lotze nevertheless suggests something of the distinctive character of phenomena; ‘the lustre emitted by objects only seems to be emitted by them, and that it can even seem to come from them, only because our eyes are there, the receptive organs of a cognitive soul, to which appearances are possible’ (Lotze, 1885: 157). He insists, indeed, that ‘In all perception nothing is directly in our consciousness but that which it has itself created’’ (1885: 347). And, at the same time, these constructive acts are felt in terms of incipient emotions: ‘Feelings of the most various kinds pervade all the manifold events of ideational life’ (1885: 240). For him, the ‘transfiguring radiance’ of the senses is a reflected image of ourselves.

In a more significant and systematic way, however, phenomenological ideas emerged in the work of Franz Brentano, whom Husserl himself recognized as the real starting point for his own thought, and whose ideas, therefore, belong to the internal development of the movement itself.

Consciousness as a ‘Field’

Husserl’s philosophy is best understood as a rigorous description of experience considered as an extended field, or fields, of consciousness in preference to its analysis in terms of point-mass concepts which had developed as one of the central assumptions of modernity. His philosophy is directly linked, therefore, not only to specific philosophical discussions within but, more generally, to the major cultural transformations of the late nineteenth century.

Within the empiricist and ‘objectivist’ account of reality—in the physical sciences themselves—new ideas had emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century which seriously challenged classical mechanism. The general features of wave phenomena had previously been studied in relation to some aspects of light and electricity, but in the bold and original work of James Clerk Maxwell a systematic foundation for a new view of the physical universe was successfully established. Maxwell’s wave equations proved to be the starting point for new mechanical and dynamical concepts which came to dominate the development of twentieth-century physics. Rather than being viewed as localized in naturally individuated physical bodies—the bearers of ‘primary qualities’—matter was viewed as extending through space, with which ultimately it became coterminous. ‘Physical’ reality was best understood as specific characteristics of space (Hendry, 1986).

At the same time, within the newly developing ‘sciences’ of the human soul, the psyche appeared in new ways. Its crystallization as a self-conscious and individuated ego, gave way to more diffuse characterizations of psychic life; at once ‘material’ as well as ‘psychic,’ dispersed throughout, rather than localized within, space. Experience was redefined as a ‘stream’ or ‘flux.’ Anton Gurwitsch, thus, begins his appropriately titled presentation of phenomenology The Field of Consciousness with a discussion of William James (Gurwitsch, 1964). For James the psychic ‘offers itself as something changing incessantly and necessarily, as if it were a stream with waves which fieetingly rise up and flow away again’ (James, 1950: 79). It is ‘Interest alone [which] gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground’’; a structure only emerges in experience secondarily as a result of the mind working on the ‘primordial chaos of sensation’ (1950: 288).

The unity and concreteness of reality might be regarded as reflecting, or even consequential upon, the experience of ourselves as coherent egos localized in singular bodies. But it was just this unity and coherence which seemed to be breaking down. More directly and dramatically than in Nietzsche’s spectacular essays, the bourgeois ego fragmented and dissolved, giving rise to puzzling new phenomena; hysteria, hypnosis, fugue, multiple personality (Ellenberger, 1970; Hacking, 1995). The emergence of new field characterizations of reality, therefore, became a matter of practical urgency as well as an intellectual necessity.

Essential Ideas of Phenomenology

The phenomenological movement which emerges in the work of Husserl proclaims a radical commitment to the founding spirit of modernity. Not only must thought be genuinely grounded in experience (a much more stringent condition than is usually thought) it must not stray beyond the boundaries of experience. Phenomenology refuses to accept as ‘real’ the referents of many of the seemingly innocuous ‘descriptive’ terms common both in scientific discourse and in everyday language. The objection to all such terms is simply that they are not transparently grounded in experience and that, far from expressing self-evident truths, they introduce ‘explanatory’ or ‘interpretative’ schémas in an ultimately arbitrary manner.

The initial aim of phenomenology, therefore, is very simple; it is to describe what is given, what appears to consciousness, without attempting to ‘explain’ it in any way and without attributing ‘significance’ and ‘meaning’ where none exists. It is a specific application of the Cartesian method of doubt; to seek only that which presents itself indubitably. Stated thus it appears to be a trivial task. Why should it be at all difficult to reveal what is already given? Our normal way of thinking cannot help but look upon such a statement with suspicion. If something is given it must be known, if it is already known surely it is given? Phenomenology takes root in this apparent contradiction and, by clarifying its essential consistency, establishes a distinctive and original orientation towards reality.


Husserl’s starting point and most general insight into the character of experience is expressed in his fundamental dictum of the ‘intentionality’ of consciousness. This means simply that consciousness is never without content: ‘Conscious processes are also called intentional; but then the word intentionality signifies nothing else than this universal fundamental property of consciousness: to be conscious ofsomething as a cogito; to bear within itself its cogitatum’ (Husserl, 1950: 33).

We cannot experience consciousness in the empty form of, for example, ‘seeing,’ ‘hearing,’ ‘feeling,’ ‘willing’ and so on; we can only be aware of seeing something, hearing something, feeling a particular way or willing something in particular. The occasionally voiced objection that characteristically contemporary feelings are not only vague in themselves but, as anxiety or guilt, are frequently ‘objectless’ is hardly an objection here (Strasser, 1977); we remain conscious of a feeling of fear or anger or guilt, though we may be unsure of its ‘source.’ This, indeed, is just Husserl’s point. From the phenomenological perspective, no judgement is made as to the ‘objective reality’ or ‘externality’ of any contents of consciousness. Experience is analysed in its own terms ‘as if it were an autonomous realm:’There is no conceivable place where the life of consciousness could break through or be broken through so that we would encounter a transcendency that could have a sense other than that of an intentional unity appearing in the subjectivity of consciousness itself (Husserl, 1970a: 236).

Husserl himself attributes the modern version of this notion to Brentano. Certainly, Brentano insisted that any adequate psychology must resist the temptation of reductionism and grasp consciousness in its own terms:

Every psychical phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the middle ages called the intentional (also mental) inexistence of an object and what we would call—although not an entirely unambiguous term—relation to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understood here as something real), or an immanent objectivity. (Brentano, 1973: 124)

The ‘objectivity’ of consciousness has no implications beyond consciousness itself. The intentionality of consciousness means only that consciousness is so structured that we are always aware of its content as an ‘object’ of some sort. The distinction between subject and object, that is to say, is a general feature of consciousness itself; its content always appears as something ‘outside’ and ‘independent’ of ourselves as conscious subjects.

Brentano’s conception, however, is restricted to the perceptual ‘immanence’ of consciousness. Along with the major empirical philosophies, Brentano is preoccupied with sensory experience; indeed, he ‘regards sensory experience as the only form of experience’ (de Boer, 1978: 79; Kockelmans, 1994: 93). Husserl enormously extends the range of intentional objects to be considered as aspects of experience. The intentional object is defined over and over again in terms of continually shifting perspectives and in relation to distinct modalities of its appearing. Our view of experience is thereby enormously enriched and complicated. Through a (potentially interminable) series of increasingly fine differentiations, gradations and interrelations of emotion, will, judgement, memory, sense etc., consciousness reveals itself in an inexhaustible variety of contents with their phases and transitions. And in this process the phenomenal character of experience becomes ever more firmly established.

For Husserl intentionality is the most penetrating insight into the modern sovereignty of experience. Empiricist and idealist traditions, in his view, are at fault not only in seeking to account for experience in terms other than consciousness, in doing so they have accepted an impoverished view of experience.

Lived Experience

Consciousness, however, is to be understood as lived experience (acts) rather than as the detachable ‘contents’ of the mind. Husserl is eloquent in his pursuit of this fundamental insight:

Dazed by the confusion between object and mental content, one forgets that the objects of which we are ‘conscious,’ are not simply in consciousness as in a box, so that they can merely be found in it and snatched at in it; but that they are first constituted as being what they are for us, and as what they count as for us, in varying forms of objective intuition. (Husserl, 1970a: 385)

The peculiar intentionality of consciousness is not to be mistaken for an alien presence: ‘Experience is not an opening through which a world, existing prior to all experience, shines into a room of consciousness; it is not a mere taking of something alien to consciousness into consciousness’ (Husserl, 1970a: 232). The objects of consciousness are constituted as an aspect of consciousness itself: ‘the object as having identity “within itself” during the flowing subjective process, does not come into the process from outside; on the contrary, it is included as a sense in the subjective process itself’ (Husserl, 1950: 42). Normally we remain unaware of the constituting acts of consciousness and surrender to its immanent flow: ‘The appearing of things does not itself appear to us, we live through it’ (Husserl, 1970a: 538). Merleau-Ponty vividly expresses Husserl’s insight: ‘I am no more aware of being the true subject of my sensations than of my birth or my death’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 215).

Taken together, the notions of intentionality and lived experience, as elaborated by Husserl, are sufficient to indicate a further and highly important characteristic of consciousness; its contents are not formed into objects simply but into objects of sense:

If we imagine a consciousness prior to all experience, it may very well have the same sensations as we have. But it will intuit no things, and no events pertaining to things, it will perceive no trees and no houses, no flight of birds nor any barking dogs. One is at once tempted to express the situation by saying that its sensations mean nothing to such a consciousness, that they do not count as signs of the properties of an object, that their combination does not count as a sign of the object itself. They are merely lived through, without objectifying interpretation derived from experience. (Husserl, 1970a: 309)


Phenomenology is committed to experience, but rejects empiricism. Husserl’s philosophy emerges primarily through a sustained criticism of what he called ‘psychologism’; the view, exemplified, for example, by James Mill’s Logic, that all knowledge is reducible to particular mental contents. This made logical and scientific ‘truth’ dependent on the contingency of the senses and distinct from direct perception only through the application of an ultimately mysterious process of ‘empirical generalization.’ Husserl’s insight into, and commitment to, modernity found its clearest expression in his determination to clarify our capacity for ‘apodictic’ truth; that is, truths grasped with absolute transparency and self-certainty. Husserl began his professional career as a philosopher of mathematics, and mathematics presented the most compelling and accessible domain of such truth. Our knowledge, for example, that the sum of the internal angles of a triangle is two right angles does not depend on empirical investigation. It is inconceivable that early mathematicians directly measured thousands of different triangles and, invariably finding this to be the case, elevated their observations to a general principle. Equally, however, it made no sense whatever to suppose that some ideal or perfect triangle exists somehow ‘in the mind’ so that, reflecting upon this formal object, we can investigate its supposedly universal properties. The road to mathematical truth, Husserl points out, consists in the arbitrary construction of an exemplar which, being absolutely freely produced, represents any triangle.

The ‘experience’ which is the subject matter of a pure phenomenology ‘has as its exclusive concern, experiences intuitively seizable and analysable in the pure generality of their essences’ (Husserl, 1970a: 249). ‘Essences’ are not to be regarded as empirical generalizations or as actually existing Platonic forms but, rather, as ‘intuitions’; and ‘The intuition of essences includes no more difficulties or “mystical” secrets than perception’ (quoted in de Boer, 1978: 243). Husserl aims, thus, at a general ‘geometry of experience’ (Husserl, 1973: 202).


Essential insight is gained through free variation of intentional objects. It is the unconstrained character of mathematician’s exemplary constructions which inspires confidence in the universality of the results they achieve. Husserl, it should be noted, rejects the modern romantic tradition in which apodictic truth is located in the realm of absolute freedom itself. An imaginative liberation from the constraints of empirical actualities is a necessary prelude to a rigorous investigation of eidetic objectivities, and does not itself guarantee (as is supposed in the uncontrolled self-production of archetypes) an immediate grasp of Truth (Gusdorf, 1985; Spariosu, 1989; Yack, 1992). Husserl insists that the search for apodictic truth should not be mistaken for ‘a field of architectonic play’ (Husserl, 1970a: 62).

For Husserl, ‘every fact can be thought of merely as exemplifying a pure possibility’ (Husserl, 1950: 71). Not only the mathematician’s freely chosen diagram, but all immediate unreflective experience, can be thought of as an arbitrary actualization drawn from an indeterminate variety of possibilities. Importantly, in addition to providing a route towards insight into essential aspects of experience (pure phenomenology), this idea is the starting point for new and enriched understanding of immediate experience. Empirical actuality continually points beyond itself or back from itself to the realm of possibilities from which it has appeared: ‘All actual experience refers beyond itself to possible experiences, and so on ad infinitum’ (Husserl, 1989: 147). And as ‘every actuality involves its potentialities which are not empty possibilities’ (Husserl, 1977: 54) but possibilities lived through appropriate modalities given with experience itself, empirical reality is actualized, so to speak, under the sign of possibility. It is its vast penumbra of conditionality which lends to experience much of its characteristic colour and richness. Every actual experience involves ‘the systematic shaping of pure fantasy’ (Husserl, 1977: 54), and every perception ‘thus acquired, floats in the air, so to speak—in the atmosphere of pure phantasiableness’ (Husserl, 1950: 70).

Typically, Husserl points out, ‘the active apprehension of the object immediately turns into contemplation; the ego, oriented toward the acquisition of knowledge, tends to penetrate the object, considering it not only from all sides but also in all of its particular aspects, thus, to complicate it’ (Husserl, 1973: 103). Additionally, the ego freely modalizes its relation to the world oriented towards feeling, will, recollection and so forth, revealing in successive waves ever new objects and aspects of objects; ever new phenomenological strata swim into view’ (Husserl, 1970a: 46).

The world of experience is made up not of perceptions only, but of this continually expanding field of co-present objectivities, each with its own mode of appearing and its own rich hinterland of possibilities. Any phenomenological analysis, therefore, seeks not only to grasp essential objects but also ‘by making present in phantasy the potential perceptions that would make the invisible visible’ (Husserl, 1950: 48) both dignifies and relativizes the contingent present. The world might indeed have been different but, in being just what it is, essential realities are clothed and take shape as actual experience. All actual experience is an endless process of becoming; ‘predelineated potentialities,’ appear with the object itself and, through ever renewed modalization, reveal ‘an open infinity of thematic determination’ and continually changing ‘schematic horizons’ (Husserl, 1973: 213).


Husserl refers to his philosophical method, which (however paradoxically) is nothing other than a consistent application of the distinctively modern demand for the sovereignty of experience, as the ‘transcendental reduction’ or epoché. It is the requirement that the reflecting subject temporarily withhold the conviction of reality which normally and effortlessly arises with perceptual images and other intentional acts of consciousness. Specifically he seeks to turn subjectivity away from the seeming solidity and individually objectified forms of ‘external’ reality and return it to its own ‘pre-given’ forms.

Overcoming the ‘natural attitude’ in which the world appears to us as a well founded and organized collection of objects requires not only the suppression of all scientific and theoretical abstractions through which these things are interrelated, explained and interpreted but also, and even more significantly, the dissolution of all those objectifying assumptions, rooted in everyday life and thought, through which they are originally constituted as experiential things:

we must go from the scientific fundamental concepts back to the contents of ‘pure experience,’ we must radically set aside all presumptions of exact science, all its peculiar conceptual superstructures—in other words, we must consider the world as if these sciences did not yet exist, the world precisely as life-world, just as it maintains its coherent existence in life throughout all its relativity, as it is constantly outlined in life in terms of validity. (Husserl, 1950: 216)

The ‘inhibiting’ of all existential position-taking does not imply the complete emptying of experience: ‘On the contrary we gain possession of something by it… my own living, with all the pure subjective processes making this up … the universe of “phenomena” in the (particular also the wider) phenomenological sense. The epoché can also be said to be the radical and universal method by which I apprehend myself purely’ (Husserl, 1950: 20/1).

Consciousness is decisively shifted from an orientation in which ‘nothing of the psychic acts and other subjective lived experiences which comprise the varying consciousness of the object occurs in the content of their sense itself (Husserl, 1977: 15), to one in which is established ‘an inner viewing which discloses the lived experiences of thinking (normally) hidden from the thinker’ (Husserl, 1977: 19).

In Husserl’s view, the modern methodological principle of ‘detachment’ as a precondition of valid knowledge, when taken seriously, transforms things into phenomena. In the process self-knowledge and self-understanding is placed on a new foundation:

The epoché creates a unique sort of philosophical solitude which is the fundamental methodical requirement for a truly radical philosophy. In this solitude I am not a single individual who has somehow wilfully cut himself off from the society of mankind … I am not an ego, who still has his you, his we, his total community of cosubjects in natural validity … All of mankind, and the whole distinction and ordering of the personal pronouns, has become a phenomen within my epoché … I can say nothing other than: it is I who practice the epoché … it is I who stand above all natural existence that has meaning for me. (Husserl, 1950: 184)

The epoché is a ‘transcendental reduction’; it is consciousness returned to its essential living form which ‘lays open … an infinite realm of being of a new kind’ (Husserl, 1950: 27).

Transcendental Experience

What is essential to this ‘infinite realm’? Can it be assigned a positive content or must every effort to furnish it with a structure be regarded as an unwarranted compromise with the ‘natural attitude’ which should more properly be dissolved into the pure flux of appearing and disappearing. One might well expect the epoché to fall into incoherence and a bewildering flux of conscious states. Husserl himself points out that ‘The universe of free-possibilities in general is a realm of disconnectedness; it lacks unity of content,’ and the Transcendental Reduction is founded upon just such ‘free-possibilities’ (Husserl, 1973: 356). Certainly, we cannot expect the empirical ego to be protected in some way from the general process of dissolution of the natural attitude. The ‘transcendental residuum’ contains no trace of the mundane ego as an ‘external’ observing subject which is, so to speak, assimilated to the self-identity of experience itself.

Significantly, however, Husserl also emphasizes that, in addition to our awareness of fluid and streaming life, ‘we also experience equally well subjects with abiding psychic characteristics, as characteristics, that is, which manifest themselves as remaining during the multiple change of psychic doing and living’ (Husserl, 1977: 79). And, more decisively, he insists the eidos is intuited through ‘exemplary arbitrariness’ the ‘whim of passive imagination’ (Husserl, 1973: 343); an essence which is directly linked to the manifold of experiences. The ‘bracketing’ of the natural attitude, that is to say, both in terms of contents and modalities, reveals a previously hidden structure rather than a phenomenal chaos. Husserl, in fact, confidently assures us that ‘the bare identity of the “I am” is not the only thing given as indubitable in transcendental self-experience’ (Husserl, 1950: 28).


The ‘primal’ givenness of experience consists, first of all, in its embodiment. The epoché does not detach ‘pure’ experience from the body—the critical error in the Platonic tradition is just the claim that it does—rather, it reveals the constitutive role of the body for the whole field of consciousness. Even for the natural attitude, in fact, the intimacy of body and soul never wholly decomposes into the estrangement of object and subject. A psychological analysis carried on wholly within the natural attitude already reveals that ‘The qualities of material things are aestheta, such as they present themselves to me intuitively, prove to be dependent on my qualities, the makeup of the experiencing subject, and to be related to my Body and my “normal sensibility”.’ In a completely general sense ‘The Body is, in the first place, the medium of all perception … all that is thingly-real in the surrounding world of the Ego has its relation to the Body’ (Husserl, 1989: 61; Strauss, 1963, 1966).

But, more properly understood, the mutual implication of body and soul is itself a phenomenological insight which shakes consciousness out of the natural attitude; Body and soul ‘are bound and interwoven together, they flow into one another in layers and are possible only in this unity of a stream. Nothing can be torn away from this stream; nothing can be separated off as, so to say, a thing for itself’ (Husserl, 1989: 98). Equally, the natural attitude towards the ego or psyche as an empirical unity (itself a reflex of the natural attitude towards the body), is dissolved in the phenomena of embodiment:

no attempt to separate off and objectify the soul—just as is the case with the thing itself, so the soul itself is nothing more than the unity of its properties; in its states it ‘behaves’ in such and such a way, in its properties it ‘is’ and each of its properties is a sheer ray of its being. (Husserl, 1989: 131)

Consciousness, that is to say, is a synthesis of a peculiar sort: ‘The flux of psychic life has its unity in itself’ (Husserl, 1989: 140). The directionality and orientation of consciousness—the fundamental intentionality of consciousness—finds its ‘zero-point’ in the phenomenon of embodiment; in the pre-givenness of the body as the centre of experience: ‘I have all things over and against me; they are all “there”—with the exception of one and only one, namely the Body, which is always “here”’ (Husserl, 1989: 166).

The embodied soul and the ensouled body are one and the same living being, a being distinct from either the body or the soul of the natural attitude:

In a quite unique way the living body is constantly in the perceptual field quite immediately, with a completely unique ontic meaning … Thus, purely in terms of perception, physical body and living body [Körper und Leib] are essentially different. (Husserl, 1989: 107)

The body is more than the point of spatial orientation, it is the centre of the phenomenal world in all its modalities and is, therefore, uniquely related to the ego; it is my body:

the Body has its special virtues compared with other things, and as a result it is ‘subjective’ in a preeminent sense, i.e., as bearer of fields of sense, as organ of free movements, and so as organ of the will, as bearer of the center and as seat of the fundamental directions of spatial orientation … this Body is my Body, and indeed mine in the palpable special sense, because I already am and in a certain sense bestow on it its special virtues. (Husserl, 1980: 224)

The fundamental directionality of consciousness, its horizon of expectation and appearing, in all its modes, is embodied and is orientated to the world primarily in terms of corporeality. It is also clear that the special intimacy of embodiment means that the ‘free-variation’ of experience, which is the key to grasping essential phenomena, here mutually reinforces the peculiarly ‘given’ quality of both Body and Soul. We cannot, even in imagination, divest ourselves of bodily form or enter a world other than that given to us as human experience; we can empathize with another person but not with a member of another species.

The phenomenological foundation in embodiment also provides a key point of differentiation from both idealist and empirical psychologies of self-identity. For the empiricist tradition personal identity remains fundamentally unexplicated and accidental; a mysterious accretion consequential on the various ‘contacts’ the body makes with its environment. The idealist tradition, alternatively, lodges identity with the soul and places it inside the body. Both traditions support a ‘developmental’ view in which authentic selfhood is progressively attained; either, because the body is brought under ever greater control by the rational intelligence adventitiously adhering to it, or because the interior soul succeeds finally in ‘expressing itself’ as spontaneous action. In both views development depends on a progressive concentration and, as it were, narrowing of the focus of personal characteristics. Authenticity is a process of gaining clarity and self-definition, of becoming more and more just the person we are and abandoning all the people we might have been.

Husserl decisively rejects these approaches which fatally confuse the transcendental and empirical ego. For him, self-identity, like all other aspects of consciousness, is phenomenal in character. Authenticity, the essential ego, as distinct from the continuous transitions of immediate experience, is a product of free-variation and modalization. The ‘self emerges as a result of continuously departing from and returning to itself; a process of continuous imaginative enrichment. It is in the endless multiplicity of open possibilities, rather than the enforced selection of the singular and decisive choice, that the self establishes its own validity. This, largely unexplored, implication of Husserl’s work provides a potentially fertile approach to a realistic psychology of modern experience.


Spatialization is an achievement of the body/ego; a construction and a psychical act. All experience must be orientated to ‘here’ or ‘there,’ ‘near/far,’ ‘right/left,’ ‘up/down,’ ‘inside/outside’ and so on. Spatialization, however, is not the most fundamental aspect of intentionality. Husserl shifts the perspective of post-Renaissance modern thought away from space and vision in which the ‘natural attitude’ of spectatorship emerged (Edgerton, 1991; Leppert, 1996; White, 1957) towards time and the original kinaesthesia of sensing. Temporality is given with every act of consciousness and is present ‘first of all as an all-ruling, passively flowing synthesis, in the form of the continuous consciousness of internal time. Every subjective process has its internal temporality’ (Husserl, 1993: 41). Husserl claims that ‘Time-consciousness is the original seat of the unity of identity in general’ (1993: 73) and that, consequently, ‘For us temporality is a sufficient mark of reality.’

This is among the most challenging of Husserl’s positions. Abandoning the natural attitude leaves the transcendental ego in a potentially timeless void. The fact that a continuous flow of phenomena make their appearance cannot be predicated on the empirical flux of actual events. ‘Events’ do not themselves disclose such a flow, nor, indeed, do they reveal with absolute clarity an ‘arrow of time’ as a condition of experience itself. Within the epoché there are no ‘events’ in the normal sense of the word. This might be thought of as closely related to Henri Bergson’s notion of the experience of time as ‘duration’ (Bergson, 1991). Rather than begin with spatial categories (objects, events, changes of location) from which the necessity of time is deduced, the primordially given experience of temporality is itself the medium receptive to the construction of spatial categories.

Temporality is a pre-given and absolutely general condition of the transcendental ego. The transcendental reduction loses contact with empirically measured or ‘objective’ time, but is not empty of temporality. ‘Now,’ ‘before,’ ‘earlier,’ are given phenomenological data from which Husserl develops a rich network of insights.

temporal determinations of every sort are attached in a certain way and as a necessary consequence to every coming into being and passing away that occurs in the present. (Husserl, 1993: 15)

Retention in consciousness, furthermore, effects continuous and essential changes in its contents; every ‘now point’ has attached to it ‘consciousness of what has just been’ (Husserl, 1993: 34), then ‘sinks’ into the past with progressive loss of its determinations. We cannot avoid the flow of ‘now points’ and their continuous modification. Paul Ricoeur nicely emphasizes the point; ‘we cannot stress too much the extent to which consciousness is disarmed and powerless before its own drift into the future’ (Ricoeur, 1966: 52). The continuous process of modification means that an ‘impressional consciousness, constantly flowing, passes over into ever new retentional consciousness’ (Husserl, 1993: 31):

Ever new primal impressions continuously flash forth with ever new matter, now the same, now changing. What distinguishes primal impression from primal impression is the individualizing moment of the impression of the original temporal position, which is something fundamentally different from the quality and other material moments of the content of sensation. (Husserl, 1993: 70)

We never experience ‘empty’ duration, but all experience requires a co-present and independently constituted temporal flow. Consciousness, indeed, is a ‘double intentionality’ bodying forth objectivities bearing essential temporal relations.

Husserl is at pains to reveal the complexity of actual time-consciousness in its varied forms and the subtle enrichment of consciousness effected by the work of retention, secondary memory and free phantasy, each introducing, and as it were, interleaving varied forms of temporality and constituting objectivities in their own distinctive ways.


The existence of other body/ego unities is also given originally in experience. Husserl himself discusses at considerable length, particularly in the fifth Cartesian Meditation, how this is to be understood. Making minimal assumptions, he argues that other bodies are perceived and enter our own experience as conscious contents. There is, however, a difficulty of grasping the sense in which the Other, which is alien from me, is none the less given as the centre of its own world and not just as another version of myself. The Other is always outside me, always ‘there,’ as distinct from my ‘here.’ The Other as human subject, Husserl suggests, is inferred analogically on the basis of our own ‘free-variation’—we can imaginatively take the position of the other body and see that it behaves ‘as if’ another (impenetrable) ego were located there. Making somewhat less minimal assumptions, we might prefer (with, for example, Max Scheler, 1973, or Ortega y Gassett, 1957), to say that the Other is given directly as Other (clearly we cannot directly enter into another’s experience); that is, as another person without need of inference or deduction. In any event the world is experienced as intersubjective, as shared and available to Others. Indeed, the fact that my own essence can stand over against the Other ‘presupposes that not all my modes of consciousness are modes of self-consciousness’ (Husserl, 1950: 105).

There are two distinct senses in which intersubjectivity becomes important here. First, as what might be termed the interactive ego. The givenness of Others means that my world is constituted through communicative interaction and practical activity in relation to Others and not simply on the basis of experience considered from the point of view of some (illusory) individual consciousness. Secondly, transcendental experience (the modalities of sense, judgement, feeling and so on, as well as the general features of epochë) is intersubjective in the sense of being absolutely general and universal; in terms of essential phenomena my experience must be identical to every other person’s. Husserl would probably have included in this universality the sense of self-identity as an individuated monad.

It is perhaps not surprising (though alternative approaches may well prove more promising) that it is in terms of some notion of interactive subjectivity that a fruitful point of contact between Husserl’s work and sociological thought has most frequently been sought.

Historical Subjectivity

Husserl’s last major work, The Crisis in European Science—like others published in his own lifetime subtitled ‘An Introduction to Phenomenology’—is distinctive in presenting his ideas in a broad historical framework. This may be seen not simply as another ‘way in’ to phenomenological insights and methods but, rather, as an essential development of phenomenology itself (Carr, 1987). Once the intersubjective character of consciousness is recognized then the historical character of experience comes to light.

This, in fact, is no new departure for Husserl whose chosen method—a rigorous working through of the implications of Cartesian doubt—has tended to obscure the essentially historical character of his project as a whole. His philosophy had always been an explication of modernity; and, though the ‘teleological-historical’ account of phenomenology in the Crisis is not a genuinely new development, it is, certainly, an important and comprehensive reworking of basic insights. Here the historical context is supplied with a definite and impassioned statement of the origins of modernity in Galilean science’s claim to Truth, and in the demand for human self-autonomy implicit in that claim. But the early promise of the modern sciences—the founding of a new radical and free philosophy as a coherent development of an all-embracing human reason—underwent curtailment, fragmentation and disillusionment. The primal establishment of the new ‘philosophy’ (of humanism) was the living demand of European humanity, ‘which seeks to renew itself radically’ (Husserl, 1970b: 12). Thus the crisis of philosophy implies the crisis of all modern sciences as members of the philosophical universe. This universe, however, was and remains grounded in actual experience; a point on which he had already insisted ‘every particular scientific province must lead us back to a province in the original experiential world’’ (Husserl, 1977: 40). Consequently, the general crisis in philosophy—the fragmentation and emptying of Reason—represents ‘at first a latent, then a more and more prominent crisis of European humanity itself in respect to the total meaningfulness of its cultural life.’ The philosophical faith in reason—which had once been the most decisive statement of the modern commitment to the sovereignty of experience—has been shattered:

It is reason which ultimately gives meaning to everything that is thought to be, all things, values, and ends—their meaning understood as the normative relatedness to what, since the beginning of philosophy, is meant by the word ‘truth’—truth in itself … Along with this falls the faith in ‘absolute’ reason, through which the world has its meaning, the faith in the meaning of history, of humanity, the faith in man’s freedom, that is, his capacity to secure rational meaning for his individual and common human existence. (Husserl, 1970b: 9)

Husserl wants to revive these great tasks of philosophy and reimbue it with the spirit of its first modern foundation, for, ‘If man loses his faith, it means nothing less than the loss of faith “in himself” in his own true being.’ True being remains a task and not an immediately given aspect of consciousness.

Spirit in Modernity

It is not difficult to see that a concept of ‘interactive’ subjectivity supports an essentially historical understanding of experience; what is much more challenging, however, is the idea that the ‘collective’ or ‘universal’ subject, defined through the absolutely general results of the transcendental reduction, is also historical in character. The most rigorous reflection on our own apparently individuated and personal experience of the world reveals a pre-given structure of consciousness which reconnects us, so to speak, to the general world of humanity and, therefore, to its history. Such a view is already anticipated by Husserl in an important essay on psychology in which he associates his own views more closely to the historical hermeneutics of Wilhelm Dilthey (one feels he might well have mentioned Hegel in this regard).

The separation of the world of reason—as scientific idealization and rationality—from the world of primordial experience leads ultimately to a crisis; to the loss of meaning and significance in the very bearer of reason itself. The impressive commitment and rigour of the Crisis is equalled only in Max Weber’s sociological writing as a statement, both ironic and despairing, of the inescapable human failure of modernity (Schluchter, 1996: Weber, 1948).

More than this the Crisis brings into focus both the historical character of human subjectivity and the subjective character of human history. History is the paradox of subjectivity: ‘that of humanity as world-constituting subjectivity and yet as incorporated into the world itself (Husserl, 1970b: 182). Human history is grasped as self-created Objectivity and Otherness; that is to say, as spirit. The grasping of humanity as spirit penetrates Husserl’s work as a whole and comes increasingly into prominence with its development; in Cartesian Meditations, for example, he remarks ‘we … not only have a spiritual heritage, but have become what we are thoroughly and exclusively in a historicalspiritual manner’ (Husserl, 1950: 71).

All experience shares to some degree this enigmatic character. The natural scientist, too, deals with spiritual data. Modern science is general and irresistible truth, identical for all and identical over time; uniquely in this field ‘repeated production creates not something similar … [but] something identically the same, identical in sense and validity’ (Husserl, 1970b: 278). But this general validity has a starting point and periods of renewal and rediscovery. Science finds its modern philosophical form in humanism; and humanism traces itself in the Greek world. Now, if we enquire about Greek science we must begin with an understanding of what constituted ‘Nature’ for the Greeks, what was included in their “surrounding world” as their “world representation”. Now, ‘“Surrounding world” is a concept that has its place exclusively in the spiritual sphere … Our surrounding world is a spiritual structure in us and in our historical life’ (Husserl, 1970b: 272). The ‘eternal validity’ of science, in its origins and development as in its confrontation with new infinities and tasks, cannot be removed from the spiritual structure of history. Its truths find their full meaning only in relation to the spiritual ‘life-world’ and its vast historical transformations.

Implications for Social Theory

Sociologists and social theorists have found it easier to ignore than to criticize or assimilate phenomenology. It has been (wrongly) identified as both ‘psychological’ and ‘idealist’; positions from which sociology regards itself as having a special responsibility to win conviction. More plausibly, perhaps, it seems that phenomenology ‘brackets’ just those aspects of experience which are of abiding concern to social theorists. The epoché considers experience, as it were, artificially removed from its constituting entanglement in society. Yet it has been just the point of the preceding presentation to make clear the connection—and in quite fundamental ways—between phenomenology and the substantive themes of any realistic social theory and any meaningful historical sociology of modernity.

There are three evident ways in which phenomenology in fact became relevant to sociological theory. First, as a distinctive methodological approach to the central problems and tasks of sociology, secondly, as itself a source of sociologically valid insight and, thirdly, as forming the descriptive material for a general sociology of modern experience.

The most notable ‘bridge’ between the two is to be located in the writings of Alfred Schutz, whose work focuses, as does the majority of (the relatively few) contributions to this dialogue, overwhelmingly on the first and second of these themes.

Schutz’s phenomenological approach to social reality, in contrast to Husserl’s insistence upon the centrality of the transcendental reduction, might be characterized as immanent and mundane. He is less concerned with revealing the ‘given’ character of consciousness (whether or not as an historical-social construct) by a rigorous and artificial exclusion of everything immediately available to us within the stream of conscious social life, as of grasping that social world as a thoroughly ‘interpreted’ reality. His phenomenology does not begin with an act of withdrawal or annihilations so much as with a complicit affirmation of social life as a paramount reality: ‘The world of everyday life is … man’s fundamental and paramount reality’ (Schutz and Luckmann, 1973: 3). What Husserl had ‘bracketed’ in order to reveal the most primitive structure of consciousness becomes the real subject matter for a phenomenological understanding of society. This entirely avoids the difficult analytical problems connected with intersubjectivity. Though making reference at various times to the inadequacy of both Husserl’s and other phenomenological treatments of the problem, Schutz himself offers no original solution to the difficulty (Schutz, 1966: 51-83). For Schutz intersubjectivity is the givenness of the social world and needs no fundamental explication (Schutz and Luckmann, 1973: 5). We respond to and live in a world that is already formed as a community. The concrete social sciences, thus, deal directly with ‘that mundane sphere which transcendental phenomenology has bracketed’ (Schutz, 1964: 122).

The first task of a phenomenological sociology, therefore, is to gain insight into the conventional interpreted character of lived social experience. He points out, in this regard, that both scientific concepts and ‘everyday’ experience are constituted through categories remote from anything immediately given in consciousness; ‘… the so-called concrete facts of commonsense perception are not so concrete as it seems. They already involve abstractions of a highly complicated nature’ (Schutz, 1962: 3). Sociology deals with ‘second-order’ abstractions, with interpretations of those interpretations which constitute the immediate content of social life.

This approach encourages a methodological eclecticism which draws also on the writings of Henri Bergson and, more particularly, of William James. Schutz may thus reasonably be regarded as championing a ‘subjective’ sociology; that is to say social reality is constituted in and through meaningful actions and relations. There are no wholly ‘objective’ facts of social life as social life consists exclusively in interpreted behaviour. This brings Schutz’s work into a close (but partial and one-sided) relation to that of Max Weber, whom he explicitly acknowledges. This version of phenomenology quickly established itself as a significant critique of positivistic and scientistic trends in American social science research (Cicourel, 1964, 1968).

At a more substantive level of phenomenological insight into the character of social life Schutz may be viewed, otherwise, as drawing heavily on conventional American functionalism rather than on Husserl’s critical historical insight into modernity. ‘Society’ is here viewed as a functional unity; a coherent and ordered whole predicated on a shared body of beliefs and perceptions through which ‘reality’ is defined as the common property of all its members. The consensual unity of social life, however, rather than being expressed in, and depending upon, a specific body of ‘values’ is characterized as an ‘everyday reality’ or common ‘lifeworld.’ The large-scale coherence of society, that is to say, emerges and is sustained through a multitude of mundane ‘taken-for-granted’ assumptions. Schutz, returning to the mainstream of modern philosophy, defines this ‘taken-for-granted’ reality primarily in cognitive terms; as a specific thought world and perceptual community, in which a certain ‘stock of knowledge’ has been institutionalized, above all in everyday language, as the unreflective foundation of experience.

In terms of social relations a fundamental distinction arises between ‘face-to-face’ relationships with others directly known and familiar, and relations of a more distant and indirect type. Confirming a tradition deeply rooted in American culture Schutz assumes the former to be the ‘real’ foundation for social life in general. ‘Authentic’ social relations express the immediate reciprocity of human contact. All other relations are conducted through a highly differentiated and unequally distributed ‘stock of knowledge’ through which ‘out groups’ are defined in terms of a variety of ‘typifications’: ‘The world, the physical as well as the socio-cultural one, is experienced from the outset in terms of types’ (Schutz, 1970: 119). ‘Society’ is made possible, in other words, through the sharing of a stock of knowledge within small groups and through reciprocal functional relations among such groups. The consensual unity of society is, thus, assumed as a theoretical necessity rather than taken as an analytical or empirical hypothesis.

In this context social action is not only regarded, in Max Weber’s sense, as ‘subjectively meaningful,’ it is interpretable by the sociologist as a consequence of the functional unity of society as a whole; recprocity of action guarantees a certain level of mutual comprehension. Indeed, this unity becomes ever more evident and, therefore, sociology draws ever closer to the everyday common sense of the lifeworld: ‘The more these interlocked behaviour patterns are standardized and institutionalized, that is, the more their typicality is socially approved by laws, folkways, mores, and habits, the greater is their usefulness in common sense and scientific thinking as a scheme of interpretation of human behavior’ (Schutz, 1962: 62). Modern society, thus, is characterized by a high level of functional integration and unity, and by a growing uniformity of social action as meaningful in terms of ‘rational’ criteria. Schutz’s conception here, though expounded in relation to Weber’s sociology is, once again, distinctively American in tone. Rational action is idealized as conscious choice; as an implicit expression of the freedom of the market. Action is defined as ‘conduct devised by the actor in advance,’ and is in principle ‘based on a preconceived project’ (Schutz, 1962: 19). In contrast, it should be noted, Husserl repeatedly describes action in terms of vague, drifting movements and tentative probings; the partial opening and extending of horizons; continually intermingling tendencies and so on.

Schutz clarifies, simplifies and rationalizes Husserl’s endlessly complicating picture of experience. For him ‘everyday reality’ is of paramount importance and, rather than gaining its depth and solidity through a complex process of modalization and free-variation (themselves, of course, also sociohistorical processes); this reality increasingly takes on the character of the ‘given’ and unconditional objectivity Husserl was at pains to decompose. Schutz’s subjectivism, in practice, consecrates the ‘natural attitude,’ withdrawal from which had been the starting point of the phenomenological movement. By avoiding the difficulties into which Husserl was led by his rigorous analysis of consciousness, Schutz, therefore, also abandons the critical spirit of his master’s endlessly nuanced description of experience.

These tendencies become yet more apparent in Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s sociological elaboration of Husserl’s notion of ‘life-world’; which is more openly a ‘subjective’ version of the functionalist paradigm dominant in American sociology in the late 1960s (Berger and Luckmann, 1967). Berger and Luckmann, indeed, reintroduce an object/subject distinction into the heart of their sociological theory of institutionalization. ‘Lifeworld’ here becomes ‘everyday reality,’ to be understood in terms of a hierarchy of meanings through which its conventional order was realized and maintained—that is, as the interpretations of social actors themselves within the natural attitude. Phenomenology, in this version, owed more to Talcott Parsons than it did to Edmund Husserl.

Both the methodological and theoretical implications of this position were further developed in a distinctive fashion by Harold Garfinkel, whose Ethnomethodology might be regarded as a further ‘secularization’ of phenomenology; an approach which restricts itself to conventional criticisms of positivism in the social sciences and to reporting on the everyday worlds of local social actors (Garfinkel, 1967).

Both these examples illustrate the ease with which phenomenological ambitions can be thwarted by a return to either idealism or empiricism. It might reasonably be expected that the results of an ‘ethnomethodological’ report, or an enquiry into social knowledge, would be the starting point rather than the conclusion of a genuine phenomenological sociology. Indeed, phenomenology now appears insignificant as a theoretical perspective in sociology in large measure because it has become exclusively associated with a relatively brief period (late 1960s and early 1970s) whose central sociological ideas have gone out of fashion.

The third approach, it might be argued, has yet to be attempted. Yet it is just such an attempt which Husserl himself makes in his last major work. In this context, it might be asked what is the nature of the social reality which is caught and held in the phenomenological tradition; what turn of modernity gives rise to this philosophy as its valid expression? In this context it is worth noting that a genuine but unacknowledged development of historical phenomenology has in fact been taking place.

More specifically, an historical phenomenology of the senses has been rapidly developing. The rise of visual culture has been a major theme (Brennan and Jay, 1996), and has included important new studies of colour and shadow in the Western history of representations (Gage, 1993; Stoichita, 1997). The emphasis on vision is now in danger of obscuring the importance of changing modes of aural perception and of sound as a metaphor of reality; music and musicology (particularly harmonics) played a foundational role in early modern humanism and in its extension to the new sciences (Crombie, 1995: vol. 2; Hallyn, 1993). Now smell and to a lesser extent taste and touch are being invested as historical and cultural phenomena of the most general type (Classen, 1993). These are studies which progressively turn their attention away from the ‘objects’ of the senses to investigate the social organization and social meaning of the act of seeing, hearing, touching etc. Less developed but potentially rich fields of historical phenomenology await similar investigations; particularly an historical phenomenology of emotion, feeling, will and action.

In a remarkable way an historical phenomenology of memory is also beginning to emerge. Pioneering studies have begun the process of providing modern memory with a genuine history (Carruthers, 1990; Geary, 1994; Yates, 1966; and for a specific modern content, Mosse, 1990; Samuels, 1994; Winter, 1995). Recently too, and promising far-reaching implications, there has been considerable historical and sociological interest in the central phenomenological theme of embodiment. In these studies both the ‘natural attitude’ and the ‘primal’ givenness of the body emerge as distinctive historical phenomena (Elias, 1994; Foucault, 1977; O’Neill, 1985; Vernant, 1991). It is all the more indicative of the penetrating influence of Husserl’s philosophical novelties that these recent contributions come from such diverse fields, in complete disregard of phenomenology itself, or, not uncommonly, from quarters hostile to that movement.

Husserl’s phenomenology offers a double perspective of the map of contemporary experience. The natural attitude, it might be said, describes the experience of classical modernity in all its aspects; the point-mass vectorial quality of individuated being. The phenomenological reduction, on the other hand, describes the breakthrough into contemporary ‘openness’; the streaming fluidity of (postmodern experience. The world of primordial givenness, in fact, is the world of the hypermodern.

The condition of contemporary experience—advanced or (post)modernity—might itself be regarded as an epoché or phenomenological reduction. The reduction with which Descartes began, artificially so to speak, surrendering an attitude to the world, refusing momentarily to take a stand in relation to it, and thus transforming its contents into ‘mere phenomena’ has in fact become the standard practice of everyday life. The withdrawal into doubt crystallizes the ego in its peculiar primordial purity and pre-givenness; but does so in a manner detached from the world itself. ‘Standing above them all in my posture of epoché I may no longer take part in performing them. Thus my whole life of acts—experiencing, thinking, valuing, etc.—remains, and indeed flows on; but what was before my eyes in that life as “the” world having being and validity for me, has become a mere “phenomenon” and this in respect to all determinations proper to it’ (Husserl, 1970b: 77/8). In the Epoché, the world itself has been transformed into my ideae.

But if this becomes a general attitude, then the self as well as the world is negated; the ego can stand apart from the world only in relation to its own validity, only as an interval (like dreaming) between periods of ‘real’ life. But when ‘real life’ is phenomenalized the epoché can no longer take place and self-certainty is assimilated to the insubstantial passage and transitions of that world, to phenomenal moralization rather than to actions properly speaking.

Oscillatory Motion

The most important criticisms of Husserl come from within phenomenology itself. Beginning, it should at once be admitted, with Husserl’s own protégé, Martin Heidegger, who quickly abandoned the phenomenological method (or methods) of radical doubt—the ‘bracketing’ of some aspects of reality. Heidegger’s own position, in fact, is more clearly understood in relation to its (almost wholly unacknowledged) inspiration in the work of the Danish religious writer Soren Kierkegaard. For them it is quite inconceivable (and not just practically difficult) to ‘suspend all existential position taking.’ The essential character of human being is just to be ‘interested,’ continually and irresistibly interested, in its own reality (Kierkegaard), or to ‘care’ about its own world (Heidegger). In spite of their own denials, existentialists remain much more closely aligned to modern romanticism (which Husserl decisively rejected) than they liked to admit. Though even here, in spite of the self-conscious rejection of Husserl’s phenomenology, it is hardly possible to read Heidegger as other than a critical commentary on his original mentor. And, as a guide to contemporary experience, it is Husserl who is surely the more comprehensive and reliable. Kierkegaard, it should be noted, in offering his own ‘Cartesian Meditation,’ remains a consistent and significant potential critic of Husserl. In his writings ‘boredom’ and detachment are grasped insightfully as themselves ‘positing and existential position taking’; providing an exemplary modern psychology while at the same time subverting the methodological starting point of phenomenology (Ferguson, 1995). Lethargy, depression and melancholy mark the contemporary age as its own (Asendorf, 1993; Rabinbach, 1990). From Pascal onward, a tradition, powerfully renewed in each generation’s creative writers, has tirelessly explored the modern fascination with disinterest and self-absorption. Boredom and lethargy have become observable in the most basic phenomenological data of bodily experience—exhaustion, the symptomatology of neuroses, neurasthenias of all kinds—as well as in the deep withdrawness of schizophrenia (Sass, 1992).

An ‘existential’ variant which is in principle more supportive of Husserl’s positions is provided by Karl Jaspers in his neglected masterpiece General Psychopathology (1963). An encyclopedic work to which Jaspers added throughout his life, its phenomenological approach to the possible deformations of ‘normal’ consciousness does more than any other single volume to reveal the extent to which the ‘natural atittude’ is a conventionalized and fragile structure. All other possibilities, the entire range of modalizations of normal experience, can not only be imagined, they can be experienced as empirical actualities. In that work the enriching penumbra of conventional consciousness is brought fully to light as the inexhaustible variety in the madness of contemporary experience (Sass, 1992).

The most imaginative and compelling of phenomenological writers, Gabriel Marcel, contests Husserl’s results rather than his method. In Marcel’s view the phenomenological reduction certainly leads to valid insight, but not to certain self-knowledge or self-understanding. What is revealed, rather, is the ineradicable mystery of being. Phenomenology, thus, is the foundation of a new theology of contemporary existence rather than the self-clarifying philosophy of modern experience (Marcel, 1949/50, 1952). This is a powerful and beautifully expressed idea, which finds an echo in the equally original writings of Emmanuel Levinas but, once again, must be regarded as a one-sided development rather than a valid rejection, of Husserl’s insights. Husserl is determined to trace knowledge back to its intuitive self-founding; he is not concerned to produce ‘new’ knowledge. There is no need to produce ‘knowledge’ of the pre-given reality which is, by definition, already heavy with self-presence. To seek further elucidation at this point is to create a mystery and amounts to asking the wrong question; it is rather like trying to ‘explain’ the fact that we exist, or (as Johann Kepler mistakenly attempted) why there should be just six planets rather than five or seven or any other number. More generally, it should be admitted that Husserl views humanity as spiritual being, and understands science and culture as the work of spirit. The crisis of the sciences is nothing other than the sign of a spiritless age.

The significant insights of phenomenology focus on the ‘given’ character of experience, yet they also reveal the active role of the experiencing subject in their original constitution as reality. This is just the ‘paradox of subjectivity’ with which Husserl’s work is continually concerned, and a potentially fruitful point of contact, it should be noted, with Marx’s analysis of modern society as the commodity mode of production.

Like quantum physics, the essential problem in relation to phenomenology is to interpret its significance, rather than to criticize its internal consistency or reject its assumptions. The ‘formalisms’ are convincing; they are nothing other than the self-evident; but what does this mean? An historical conceptualization is still possible, albeit this drives it beyond the sphere of original phenomenological insight; this is the route Husserl himself follows. And, like quantum physics, its central dynamical concept is of oscillatory transitions rather than rectilinear motion or developmental growth. Husserl grasps experience through the countless phasic variations in its modalities; and in the ceaseless transitions among perspectives, including the oscillation in his own philosophy from natural attitude to epoché. Each transition, incomprehensible in its inner quality and difference, discloses new forms of appearing and new worlds of consciousness.