Husserl founded phenomenology a century ago. Many important philosophers are phenomenologists, like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Sartre.  But What in the world is phenomenology?

Let’s start with the word. In the relevant sense, “phenomenon” means something observed, for which one wants to know the unobserved cause or explanation.

For example, glaciers are an interesting phenomenon. But where did they come from? The phenomenological move is to say, “Let’s study the phenomenon itself first, and leave the explanation aside, at least for the time being. But of course Husserl wasn’t interested in glaciers. He was interested in experience.  

Philosophers like Descartes taught us that we are directly aware of our own experiences, but then immediately asked for the explanation for the phenomenon of experience… what our experiences can teach us about the external world. Husserl made the phenomenological move with respect to experience. He said, wait, for starters, let’s study the experiences themselves. He said, “Let’s put aside the issue of where they come from and what they provide evidence for.” In his terminology, let’s bracket all of those issues. And then he did that, producing thousands and thousands of pages. Of which I have read a very small proportion. He makes lots of fascinating distinctions and claims. But it’s very difficult stuff.

It seems phenomenology ought to be of interest to cognitive science, since cognitive science studies the mind, and experience is a big part of the mind.  The phenomonologist most cited in cognitive science is probably not Husserl, but a fellow named Merleau-Ponty.

As I understand it, Merleau-Ponty thought that to understand experience—lived experience—we shouldn’t bracket everything. We shouldn’t bracket action and the body. As we experience experiences in our lives, one might say, they can’t be understood completely on their own, but need to be seen as part of intelligent action.

Thus, these days phenomenology is connected to ideas of philosophers like Dretske, who saw experience as the pickup of information relevant to action.  Husserl to Dretske—seems like a big leap! But that’s the way things go in philosophy.