Introduction to Phenomenology

The foremost living phenomenologist, Robert Sokolowski, starts the introduction to his book “Introduction to Phenomenology” published in 2000 thus:



The project of writing this book began in a conversation I had with Gian-Carlo Rota in the spring of 1996.  He was then lecturing as visiting professor of mathematics and philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

Rota had often drawn attention to a difference between mathematicians and philosophers.  Mathematicians, he said, tend to absorb the writings of their predecessors directly into their own work.  They do not comment on the writings of earlier mathematicians, even if they have been very much influenced by them.  They simply make use (emphasis JAB) of the material that they find in the authors they read.  When advances are made in mathematics, later thinkers condense the findings and move on.  Few mathematicians study works from past centuries; compared with contemporary mathematics, such older writings seem to them almost like the work of children.

In philosophy, by contrast, classical works often become enshrined as objects of exegesis rather than resources to be exploited.  Philosophers, Rota observed, tend not to ask, “Where do we go from here?”  Instead, they inform us about the doctrines of major thinkers.  They are prone to comment on earlier works rather than paraphrase them.  Rota acknowledged the value of commentaries but thought that philosophers ought to do more.  Besides offering exposition, they should abridge earlier writings and directly address issues, speaking in their own voice and incorporating into their own work what their predecessors have done.  They should extract as well as annotate.

It was against this background that Rota said to me, after one of my classes, as we were having coffee in the cafeteria of the university’s Columbus School of Law, “You should write an introduction to phenomenology.  Just write it.  Don’t say what Husserl or Heidegger thought, just tell people what phenomenology is.  No fancy title, call it an introduction to phenomenology.

This struck me as very good advice…

Although there are references to philosophers scattered throughout his book, Sokolowski rarely, if ever, resorts to arcane argot such as Husserl’s “Fundierung” preferring, instead, plain English words like “founding” and “founded” with appropriate context to refine meaning. 

This sort of “populist” approach to philosophy is, of course, a grave insult to those who have poured over the texts of the ages and we should expect them to respond with commensurate scorn.  Meanwhile, there is work to be done…

My copy..

Posted by James Bowery on Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 01:49 PM in The Ontology Project
Comments (10) | Tell a friend



Posted by Dan on December 13, 2012, 06:00 PM | #

Mathematics is about producing new theorems via deduction. As a result it’s forward directed by its very nature. And there’s an agreed upon method for checking or determining whether progress has been made. Philosophy on the other hand is open-ended and there’s no specific method for evaluating whether progress has been made.


Posted by James Bowery on December 14, 2012, 12:23 AM | #

Ah, yes, the “continual shipwreck of philosophy”. 

However the metaphor breaks down when things such as the scientific method, mathematical logic (leading to computers), etc. are ensconced in the culture—things whose value is checked not by logic but by utility—that is unless you want to treat them as debris washed ashore and scavenged by beachcombers.

It is also the case that “ships” are continually being built anew and set sail for the rocks.  It is at such times that familiarity with the history of philosophy prevents vain repetition.  The “ontology project” here at MR is not such a rebuilding but more akin to checking value by utility.  Phenomenology will turn out to be another shipwreck and will offer another limited value of its own only to those willing to take it seriously.


Posted by John on December 14, 2012, 04:26 AM | #

Ersatz has a unique figurative meaning that “spare” doesn’t carry and Zeitgeist takes at least three words to render in English. Fundierung, OTOH, is semantically identical to and cognate with a borrowed English word and is thus (in an English language text, anyway) pretentious-elitist whereas Zeitgeist, ersatz and etc. are not or nearly not so much anyway.


Posted by Melba Peachtoast on December 14, 2012, 12:24 PM | #

Ersatz zeitgeist FTW! ROFLOL!


Posted by James Bowery on December 14, 2012, 01:04 PM | #

I should probably add that the word “use” (hence “utility”) may have very different meaning in reference to phenomenology’s cultural “products” due to the connotation of causality:  You use things to cause certain responses in other things.  This time around it appears that, like existence, causality itself may undergo a transformation that becomes ensconced in the culture.  The harbingers are (among other places) in quantum mechanics but are inadequate to the human condition.


Posted by DanielS on December 14, 2012, 02:05 PM | #

I imagine that the utility of aesthetic beauty is semiotic, viz. of health and enjoyment of life - in all likelihood, of particular ways of life.

The radical breaching and devaluation (e.g., as wholly “superficial”) of aesthetics signs would transform the sign system, creating ones either obfuscating the means of systemic health or directly pointing toward, and warning of its destruction.

I wanted to consider aesthetics against the criteria of utility. Since Jim apparently sees the individual adept at innovating technology as the one exemplary of Euro men and particularly worthy of survival, what value and place the artist and beauty has in light of such a world view.


Posted by James Bowery on December 14, 2012, 03:38 PM | #

From Martin Buber’s “I and Thou”:

The attitude of man is twofold, in accord with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.

The other primary word is I-it.

Others have said:  “This, thou art.”

What might be called a “conversation with matter” is IMHO central to reforming the view and reality of Man’s relationship with matter, one manifestation of which is technology.


Posted by John on December 14, 2012, 03:39 PM | #

“Ersatz zeitgeist FTW! ROFLOL!”

I was merely contrasting borrowed German words/concepts that look useful to me as expressing something unique and not pompous like I see words like “Fundierung”, which seem to be used only to make the author and his work seem more erudite. But I guess my accidental phrase, ersatz Zeitgeist is kind of funny.


Posted by DanielS on December 14, 2012, 05:26 PM | #

Yes, first to second person relationship and interaction is an important unit of analysis, particularly in correction of the overuse of the first-to-third person relationship typical of science.


Posted by James Bowery on December 23, 2012, 10:16 AM | #

I have a few suggestions to further Sokolowski’s attempt to demystify phenomenology.  One is the use of “attention” rather than “intention”.  Its fine to introduce the historic use of “intention” in order to dispense with it, but then it should be dispensed with.  Another is to consistently apply “pieces” and “moments” to the category of “parts” (in relation to “wholes”)..  Although the word “moment” may be a bit confusing as it has a temporal connotation, I can’t think of a less confusing word just now.  The point is that the distinction between pieces and moments is important enough that those words should appear throughout the demystified text rather than allowing synonymous words and phrases into the introduction to phenomenology (except, in the initial introduction of the concepts).  Still another is a modification to what he introduces somewhat tongue-in-cheek as the distinction between “transcendentalese” vs “mundanese”.  It seems of you’re going to introduce neologisms to cover the transcendental attitude, it might be best to simply use the prefix “trans” with the mundane words.

So, you have a language that looks like attend, attending, attended, attention, attentionality, in place of the corresponding “intent”-derived words.

Also, you have, in transcendentalese “transattending” rather than “noema” and “transattended” rather than “noesis”—perhaps shortening to transtending and transtended.

Another approach would be to make the prefix be “transcen” and the derived neologisms perhaps “transcentended” and “transcentending”.

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