Cover: Phenomenology By Stephan Käufer and Anthony Chemero


An Introduction

Stephan Käufer and Anthony Chemero



We have been fortunate to study and discuss this material with many teachers and colleagues who have shaped our understanding of phenomenology. In particular we wish to thank Bert Dreyfus, Dagfinn Føllesdal, Bill Mace, Mike Turvey, and Fred Owens for teaching us much of the material in this book. We are also grateful to Mike Anderson, Chris Baber, Ed Baggs, Louise Barrett, Abeba Birhane, Bill Blattner, Taylor Carman, Dave Cerbone, Amanda Corris, Steve Croker, Steve Crowell, Elena Cuffari, Fred Cummins, Rick Dale, Hanne De Jaegher, Ola Derra, Ezequiel Di Paolo, Dobri Dotov, Catarina Dutilh-Novaes, Tom Froese, Shaun Gallagher, Melina Gastelum, Beatrice Han-Pile, Harry Heft, Manuel Heras-Escribano, Dan Hutto, Jenann Ismael, Mark James, Scott Jordan, Chris Kello, Sean Kelly, David Kirsh, Julian Kiverstein, Jonathan Knowles, Tomasz Komendzinski, Mariusz Kozak, Miriam Kyselo, Wayne Martin, Samantha Matherne, Teenie Matlock, Jakub Matyja, Marek McGann, Jonathan McKinney, Richard Menary, Marcin Miłkowski, Ronny Myhre, Erik Myin, Lin Nie, Mark Okrent, Jacek Olender, Kevin O’Regan, Isabelle Peschard, Marek Pokropski, Vicente Raja, Mike Richardson, Erik Rietveld, Etienne Roesch, Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, Joe Rouse, Gui Sanches de Oliveira, Miguel Segundo Ortin, Charles Siewert, Michael Silberstein, Paula Silva, Michael Spivey, Pierre Steiner, John Sutton, Iain Thompson, Bas van Fraassen, Witold Wachowski, Jeff Wagman, Ashley Walton, Mike Wheeler, Rob Withagen, Mark Wrathall, Jeff Yoshimi, Julian Young, and Corinne Zimmerman.

We taught seminars on this material at Franklin & Marshall College, Carleton College, and at the University of Cincinnati. We are grateful to students in those seminars, and to Jenefer Robinson, for helping us to present the material more clearly.

We are grateful to Pascal Porcheron and the editorial team at Polity Press for all of their assistance and to Fiona Sewell for careful and thoughtful copyediting. Thanks also to Gui Sanches de Oliveira and Taraneh Wilkinson for their help with the page proofs and index.

Large portions of the first edition of this book were written during research leaves from Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Cincinnati. We are grateful to these institutions for their support.

Most of all, we are grateful for the love and support of our families.


Phenomenology is a loosely grouped philosophical tradition that began with Edmund Husserl in the 1890s and is still practiced today, though some of its current instantiations no longer use the name. The tradition is old enough to have a history, and it includes claims that seem odd, quaint, or outdated. And yet it is recent enough that even the work of its founders is alive with ideas that still challenge us and hold great promise. Arguably philosophers are only now beginning to fully appreciate the core insights of phenomenology, as we learn to construct rigorous analyses of perception and cognition in a phenomenological framework.

This book covers what we believe an interested reader ought to know about phenomenology, its history, its most important authors and works, and its influence on branches of current philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. We discuss the history of phenomenology through the work of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, their arguments against scientific psychology, and their critical examination of Gestalt psychology. As part of this history, we also include extended discussions of Gurwitsch, Sartre, and the history of psychology. We go on to discuss contemporary developments in critical phenomenology of gender and race, ecological psychology, critiques of cognitivist approaches to artificial intelligence, and embodied cognitive science. This mix of topics and level of detail make this a good textbook for undergraduates studying philosophy, psychology, or cognitive science, and a good starting point for graduate students and academics who are new to phenomenology.

What you will not find in this book

Here is one way to explain our focus and distinguish it from strains of phenomenology that we will not pursue in this book. One prominent concern of phenomenology has been to provide an account of the structures that make a shared, objective world intelligible. This account focuses on perception and cognition, and recognizes that bodies and skills are fundamental in making up this intelligibility. We consider this to be the central, most important, and most productive strain of phenomenology, and this book is intended to give a clear introduction to it.

Another strain of phenomenology, which we can only explore briefly in this book, is concerned to give a description of subjective experiences, especially of experiences that are unusual and hard to explain. So, for example, phenomenology might provide an analysis of what it is like to experience religious faith, overpowering sentiments such as love or anxiety, aesthetic highs, inescapable ambiguities and paradoxes, and so forth. This is an important task, and quite often it intermingles with the first task. In Heidegger’s work, in particular, an understanding of anxiety and contingency is part and parcel of his explanation of the intelligibility of the world. In general, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty were broad and innovative thinkers and their writings touch on art, religion, politics, aesthetics, and morality. Existentialism is largely an offshoot of phenomenology, and so is much critical theory in literary studies. Consequently, phenomenology has influenced many different fields, too many to cover in a single book. Browse the faculty pages of a university website, and you may find a large number of people in literature departments, film and theater studies, theology, art, and political science who identify their work as “phenomenology.” We do not deny the importance of this phenomenology in these various fields. But a single book cannot presume to cover all this material. Our choice of topics and authors is motivated primarily by our conviction that contemporary work on embodied cognitive science is a particularly clear and relevant continuation of the most central concerns that Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty were pursuing.

A further preliminary distinction might be helpful. As is well known, English-speaking philosophy has for over half a century perceived a division between so-called “analytic” and “continental” approaches. Some philosophers on either side of the divide want to identify phenomenology with the “continental” approach, either to acclaim or to disparage the entire tradition wholesale. Those who prefer a “continental” approach would probably choose a sequence of authors that leads from Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty to Sartre, Derrida, and Levinas, and perhaps more current authors such as Badiou. That is a fine sequence of authors to study, and such overviews are available in many other books. But that is not our approach. We do not think the distinction is helpful or accurate at all, even aside from the obvious incongruity that “continental” is a geographic term while “analytic” is a stylistic or methodological one. Much analytic philosophy is done on the continent, and much good work in English-language philosophy consists of using analytic methods to explain the work of European philosophers. That is what we aim to do in this book. The goal of all philosophy, we think, is to give as clear an account as possible of the best available view on the big questions that motivate philosophy in the first place. We think that Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty articulate hard-won insights into the nature of the human ability to make sense of the world. Their writing is sometimes obscure, because they address very fundamental questions, make unexpected proposals that fly in the face of centuries of philosophical tradition, and often invent new language to render their ideas. Our job is to use what scholars have learned over the past decades to try to make it easier for today’s students to appreciate the insights of phenomenology.

Phenomenology now

A broad range of researchers in philosophy and psychology departments are empirically and conceptually investigating affordances, or the role of our bodies in perception and cognition, or action as a condition for maintaining a sense of the self. We claim that such work is not merely influenced by phenomenology, something that most of these people would readily accede to whether they have read Heidegger or not. We think that they are doing phenomenology, insofar as they are pursuing the basic ideas and insights this tradition was founded on. Still, some readers may be surprised that ecological psychology and embodied cognitive science belong among the proper successors of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. This is understandable, because the chain of influence that leads from Heidegger to, say, Gibson, dynamical systems theory, or enactivism is not clear or well known. It is easier and more common to point out more obvious threads, such as that Merleau-Ponty and Sartre were friends and collaborators for a while, and that Sartre was a giant in post-war French philosophy, from which Levinas, Derrida, and Deleuze emerged as important figures.

We hope that the narrative of this book vindicates our claim in detail, but here are two quick reminders that should make it plausible from the start. Merleau-Ponty’s work is obviously indebted to Husserl, and even more deeply to Heidegger. The third big source of his thought is his sustained critical examination of Gestalt psychology. This also had a major impact on Gibson, who was Kurt Koffka’s colleague at Smith College for several years in the 1930s, just as Gibson was beginning to develop the first ideas of ecological psychology. Beyond this parallel influence of Gestalt psychology on Merleau-Ponty and Gibson, there was possibly a direct influence of the former on the latter. Though Gibson himself would deny it, some of his students recall that later he would often compare his work to Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, to the point of trying to ward off prospective graduate students by telling them they should read this impenetrable book first, and only come back when they had understood it.

More crucial than a common ancestry in Gestalt psychology is the work of Hubert Dreyfus, who brought the views of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty into current philosophy and cognitive science. In the 1960s and 1970s Dreyfus used his unusually insightful understanding of Heidegger’s work to formulate sharp criticisms of the then burgeoning research projects in artificial intelligence. The following three decades of artificial intelligence research tell the history of the many ways in which Dreyfus’ original critique transformed the field’s understanding of human intelligence. It has led to many attempts to explain intelligent behavior in terms of the coupling of agent, body, and environment.

Why study phenomenology?

The simplest reason why you should study phenomenology is because everyone should. Even a fairly superficial study of Husserl, Heidegger, or Merleau-Ponty and those influenced by them can have a profound positive impact on your understanding of a host of issues relating to perception, cognition, and the general meaningfulness of human lives. Phenomenological approaches to a broad spectrum of issues are interesting, accurate, and promising. Any serious study of philosophy or psychology ought to include at least some exposure to phenomenology.

At the more ponderous end of the spectrum, phenomenology is an ontology of human existence. Heidegger is most explicit about this, but Merleau-Ponty and Gibson also think of their work in these terms. So their work may lead you to think that people in general, and you specifically, are a different kind of entity than you might have thought. In particular, you might think that you experience the world by passively and reflectively cognizing objects; the phenomenologist, however, argues that you experience it through competent, unreflective action. At the more lively end, the authors and theories we discuss here provide a host of thought-provoking examples to make you question some basic assumptions about what we perceive. We do not see the shapes and sizes of objects, but the possible actions they afford us, invitations to act shaped by our own bodily capabilities. Such examples make reading about phenomenology both rewarding and entertaining.

If phenomenology is an important and influential school of thought, this is because the main phenomenologists think and write with remarkable insight and creativity. So another good reason to study phenomenology is to become familiar with Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty as authors. Though their writing can sometimes be unclear and frustrating, it is ultimately exhilarating.


This book proceeds in roughly chronological order and most chapters cover one main figure or movement. The chapters stand on their own, so if you are short on time or more interested in some topics than others, you can pick and choose. However, the overall narrative is richer than a collection of individual portraits.

We have aimed to make this book easy to read without sacrificing accuracy or detail. We avoid jargon. While we use and define key technical terms proffered by the various authors, we think their insights are independent of any particular way of expressing them. In fact, you can only appreciate that phenomenology is alive and ongoing insofar as you can recognize that the same approach and the same basic views animate the different styles of the authors you will encounter in this book. We provide a glossary of key technical terms at the end of each chapter for reference.

Notes on the second edition

For the second edition, we have revised, reorganized, and expanded substantially. A list of the most important changes follows.

Chapter 2 “The Rise of Experimental Psychology” is a new chapter, collecting material that was spread across several chapters in the first edition, and with an additional section on the structuralism–functionalism debate in psychology. In its current form, it is better in keeping with the chronological structure employed in most of the rest of the book.

Chapter 3 “Edmund Husserl and Transcendental Phenomenology” has a new section on Husserl’s writings on the body (section 3.5), the purpose of which is to draw closer connections between Husserl and Merleau-Ponty.

Chapter 5 “Gestalt Psychology” collects material that was distributed across several chapters in the first edition.

Chapter 6 “Aron Gurwitsch: Merging Gestalt Psychology and Phenomenology” is entirely new. Gurwitsch is a key figure in the history of phenomenology, and was a major influence on Merleau-Ponty.

Chapter 7 “Jean-Paul Sartre: Phenomenological Existentialism” is significantly expanded from the first edition. It now includes in-depth discussion of three more of Sartre’s major works, The Transcendence of the Ego, The Imagination, and The Imaginary.

Chapter 9 “Critical Phenomenology” is new to this edition. It collects and expands upon the discussions of the phenomenology of gender and race from the first edition, and includes new discussions of Frantz Fanon and trans phenomenology.

Chapter 12 “Enactivism and the Embodied Mind” is also new to this edition. It includes an expanded version of the basic discussion of enactivism from the first edition. It also includes new sections on 4E cognitive science and enactivist approaches to social cognition and language.

All citations give the date of the first edition listed in the references. Where English translations of foreign works are listed, they are the source of our quotations. Where no English translations are listed, the translations are our own.