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Diametrically opposed to this standard of investigation, phenomenology seeks to examine the nature of the world as experienced, whatever the object of inquiry may be, including one’s self, one’s thoughts, and one’s experience of others. In other words, instead of applying a theory that presumes to account for what is happening “in” the patient one is treating, the phenomenologist goes directly to the person himself, by examining his experience of his relationship with this person. This is not a matter of speculation but of determining the ground of experience at the moment it is transformed through the interhuman bond shared with others.

Following Husserl’s (1900) call to return to “the things themselves,” a generation of phenomenologists, including Martin Heidegger, Max Scheler, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, and Immanuel Levinas set out to investigate their experience of the world in a radically different manner than the one to which scientists or philosophers were accustomed. According to Safranski (1998), Husserl and his followers

[W]ere on the lookout for a new way of letting the things approach them, without covering them up with what they already knew. Reality should be given an opportunity to “show” itself. That which showed itself, and the way it showed itself, was called “the phenomenon” by the phenomenologists. (p. 72)

Ironically, phenomenology resists definition because, like experience itself, its method is antithetical to theoretical and causal explanation. Its point of departure is its rejection of the conceptualizing tendencies of the hard, human, and even social sciences. In the preface to his Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (1964) suggested that phenomenology is necessarily difficult to define because it

[R]emains faithful to its nature by never knowing where it is going. The unfinished nature of phenomenology and the inchoative atmosphere that has surrounded it are not to be taken as a sign of failure; they were inevitable because phenomenology’s task was to reveal the mystery of the world and of reason. (p. xxi)

Phenomenology shares with psychoanalysis the view that explanation is inadequate to the task of understanding what is given to experience and shares with psychoanalytic treatment the task of determining the nature of suffering in a manner that does not objectify or categorize the sufferer. In other words, instead of posing the scientific question of what causes one to be this way or that, the phenomenologist asks, “What does it mean that I experience the world this way or that?” Once the meaning-question is substituted for that of causation one enters the realm of phenomenology, because in raising this question one accepts the inherent mystery of our existence, the puzzle of which has never been solved and, following the skeptic tradition, is not likely to be. This feature of phenomenology (that the object of experience can never be decisively separated from the subject who experiences it) is both intentional and intersubjective, because my experience of the other is always unremittingly mine, with all its attendant ambiguity and baggage.


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