Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Existential phenomenology

Basic themes of existential phenomenology are “lived experience,” “modes of being,” “ontology,” and “lifeworld.”


In his last work The Crisis of the European Sciences (1936), Husserl had already turned phenomenological analysis away from the transcendental ego and consciousness, to the prereflective lifeworld of everyday experience. Especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty radicalized this turn toward the existential world as we live and experience it.


With Heidegger this turn toward the lived world became an ontological rather than an epistemological project. Instead of asking how the being (essence) of things are constituted in consciousness Heidegger asked how the being of beings (things) show themselves to us as a revealing of Being itself. For Heidegger the phenomenological question became: How can we let that what shows itself be seen in the very way that it shows itself from itself? Phenomenology requires of its practitioners a heedful attunement to the modes of being of the ways that things are in the world. Heidegger’s existential phenomenology is also often referred to as ontological phenomenology (concerned with being) while Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology is epistemological (concerned with knowledge and the cogito).


Merleau-Ponty provides an existential interpretation of Husserl’s program in his ‘Preface’ to the Phenomenology of Perception. Instead of Husserl’s description of a disembodied consciousness that constitutes the meaning of things at the ideal level of the transcendental ego, Merleau-Ponty describes consciousness as embodied awareness of primordial experience. Consciousness is existence in and toward the world through the body. While Husserl’s phenomenology is oriented to transcendental essences, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology is existential, oriented to lived experience, the embodied human being in the concrete world. The purpose of phenomenological analysis for Merleau-Ponty is not the intuition of essences but rather it is “concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world.” Instead of striving for certain knowledge Merleau-Ponty believed that phenomenological inquiry can never yield indubitable knowledge. “The most important lesson that the reduction teaches us,” he says, “is the impossibility of a complete reduction.” While Mearleu-Ponty held a chair in psychology and pedagogy, for him phenomenological method resembles more closely an attitude than a psychological research method: “Phenomenology can be practiced and identified as a manner or style of thinking… We shall find in ourselves, and nowhere else, the unity and true meaning of phenomenology… Phenomenology is accessible only through a phenomenological method.”