Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Inquiry > Writing

Phenomenological inquiry is practised as phenomenological writing.


Writing is the way that phenomenology is practised. Phenomenologists like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Levinas, Bachelard were not only scholars but also and especially they were gifted authors. Phenomenological research does not merely involve writing: research is the work of writing–writing is at the very heart of the process. For scholars such as Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty the activities of researching and reflecting on the one hand, and reading and writing on the other hand, are indeed quite indistinguishable. When one visits the Husserl archives at the University of Louvain this close connection between research and writing becomes evident in the symbolic value of Husserl’s desk which occupies a prominent place in the archival room. It is at this desk where phenomenology received its fundamental impetus. And, yet, interestingly, Husserl himself has had little to say about written language and the actual process of phenomenological writing.


What is involved in phenomenological writing? Strangely perhaps, the practice of phenomenological writing is quite difficult to articulate. Writing is not the practice of some clever technique; neither is writing restricted to the moment where one sets pen to paper, or the fingers to the keyboard. Writing has already begun, so to speak, when one has managed to enter the space of the text, the textorium. The space of the text is what we create in writing but it is also in some sense already there.


It is easier to say what phenomenological writing is not. Writing is not just externalizing internal knowledge, it is not simply writing up one’s conclusions, it is not composing the final research report, it is not something that comes at the end of phenomenological inquiry, as if it were a mere stage in the complex set of procedures of the research process. Of course, phenomenological writing involves a painstaking application of the various methods that inhere in the reduction and the vocative. But we can say more.


Something does happens in the act of phenomenological writing: Phenomenlogical writing is the very act of making contact with the things of our world. It is in this sense that we can say that to do research is to write and that the insights achieved depend on the right words and phrases, on styles and traditions, on metaphor and figures of speech, on argument and poetic image. And even then, writing can mean both insight or illusion. And these are values that cannot be decided, fixed or settled since the one always implies, hints at, or complicates the other.


It is also helpful to be reminded that phenomenological inquiry-writing is based on the idea that no text is ever perfect, no interpretation is ever complete, no explication of meaning is ever final, no insight is beyond challenge. It behooves us to remain as attentive as possible to the ways that all of us experience the world and to the infinite variety of possible human experiences and possible explications of those experiences. Having said all this, it is now possible to make several experiential distinctions that present themselves as moments in the act of writing: I describe these as moments of seeking, entering, traversing, gazing, drawing, and touching.