Joel Smith: Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction

Owen Earnshaw

Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction Book Cover Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction
Joel Smith
Paperback £21.24

Reviewed by: Owen Earnshaw (Durham University)

As the Conclusion to Experiencing Phenomenology suggests, this book encourages us to dwell in Phenomenology[1] in order to judge its claims adequately and in doing so provides a much-needed bridge from contemporary philosophy to the world of Phenomenology. It starts out by providing a basic orientation to the problems of Phenomenology along with a brief history of the subject, but then dives straight into dealing with specific issues starting with an account of intentionality, objects, properties, events, possibilities, before then addressing the meaty subjects of self, embodiement, Others and emotions. Smith provides a good introductory overview of the main authors of the phenomenological tradition namely Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Stein and relates the theories from these authors to contemporary debates in a range of philosophical disciplines. In this review I will focus upon 4 lacunas in the text and explore whether they can justifiably be left out. In examining gaps in the text I do not wish to say that the text does not function extraordinarily well as an introductory text, but rather to analyse the authors attempt to relate Phenomenology to contemporary concerns and investigate whether such a ‘fusion of horizons’ (Gadamer: 2004) would require a more involved and careful handling of such a project than there is room for in an introductory text.

Competing Visions of Phenomenology

My first qualm about the text is the way a range of authors are presented in conjunction with each other in attempts to solve particular philosophical problems. The first problem Smith addresses is the phenomenological method itself and in doing this he pits Husserl ‘science of experience’ against Heidegger’s attempt to work out the ‘question of the meaning of Being’. The main problem here is that for a beginner this leaves out the central motivations for each thinker’s position. It would be uncontroversial to say that Heidegger and Husserl are up to very different things in their texts, and the same could be said for Sartre and Merleau-Ponty later on in the book. To present them as attempting to address certain specific problems in different ways would seem to stretch to the point of distortion their very particular approaches to the subject. The problems faced by each of the authors covered are bound up with their method, which is itself a question for them that they deal with as part of the outworking of their position. A concern with method is an aspect that is salient in much of ‘continental’ philosophy. Smith writes in the Preface, “[o]ne last thing: you won’t find the terms ‘analytic’ or ‘continental’ in the pages that follow. Good riddance” (Smith 2016: XV). Now the motivation for this statement is presumably that we have come to a point in the Anglophone philosophy where such terms are outdated and unnecessary. Smith maybe has other reasons for wishing to banish these terms from his book that he doesn’t mention, but a clarification of this statement would be good. However, it would seem that these terms can still usefully be applied if it is possible that there are different traditions behind the work done in mainly French and German Phenomenology and contemporary anglophone Philosophy of Mind or Metaphysics. And maybe the divide needs a more careful handling rather than just to ignore it. I will look at these questions in section 3. Suffice it to say that an introductory text might need to give a map of how Phenomenology is significantly different from other fields of the subject that is philosophy and at least nod towards the division that there has been in the past between at least two ways of doing that subject.

To return to the central point, with Husserl’s phrase “back to the things themselves!” we encounter a subject that wants to found a new beginning for itself as Descartes did and is very aware of its relation to the history of philosophy. Arguably this tradition of philosophy is much more dependent on personalities shaping the discipline and the student must be made aware of this. Wanting to find what is common to all Phenomenology is understandably an important concern for an introduction to the subject, but to really dwell in the subject any text on Phenomenology needs to question its own methods in relation to the history of the subject. Questions such as “Is what I am doing here authentic?” arise in relation to any engagement with the work of Heidegger or Sartre. “Can my work in this field be seen as scientific?” is a question that comes out of looking at Phenomenology with Husserl and maybe this is the method that Smith finds works best for what he has in mind and there is evidence that he sees the subject as a collaborative enterprise, where solutions to problems are worked out through argumentation, from the conclusions that he gives to each chapter. And this indeed is an appropriate methodology for an introductory guide. However the fact that the question of method for the text is never itself given an airing means that students are left with a rather disjointed exposition of fragments of the authors’ works and some of the most exciting parts of Phenomenology are left untouched. The most glaring omission to my mind is the absence of Sartre in the chapter on Other Minds, instead including Stein on empathy. This felt very unsatisfactory considering the original phenomenological analysis of shame Sartre gives as the basis for our knowledge of Other Minds and the vignettes he uses to illustrate this. Now this could be because Stein is more incisive here (and also this choice can be seen to grow out of the preceding chapter on embodiement) but it might be instead that Smith chose this author as being more in line with ‘analytic’ concerns and so a phenomenological treasure is passed over.

The Importance of Psychopathology in the Phenomenological Tradition

It would seem very unfair to point out particular subjects that an author omitted in an introductory work where tough choices will have had to be made about what to include considering the accessible size of the volume. However, for reasons I will elaborate, psychopathology is central to an understanding of the subject of Phenomenology and at least deserves a mention on the basis of its contribution to methodology. Phenomenology aims at an accurate description of the structure of experience and in order to do this it needs examples. Smith goes back again and again to his contemplation of his place of work to illustrate phenomenological points. This could reasonably be thought of as normal experience. The critical thing about psychopathology (particularly of cases of delusions, hallucinations and unusual bodily and self experiences) is that it enables us to look at abnormal experience and see what the structure of experience must be in terms of extremes. It provides real cases for giving conclusions about the imaginative thought experiments found in the method of Husserl’s eidetic reduction. Jaspers (1997) is the main exemplar of the tradition of phenomenological psychopathology and his General Psychopathology from 1923 is still in circulation among psychiatrists to this day. Although Smith occasionally peppers some of his arguments with psychiatric cases, Jaspers is mentioned only once in passing and not in relation to psychopathology. There is a grand tradition of phenomenological psychopathology including the Zollikon Seminars by Heidegger (2001) and it is currently in ascendency among philosophically inclined mental health professionals and some mention of it would have helped show a wider view of the subject and its potential practical ramifications. The need to reflect on out of the everyday experiences should be highlighted to the student new to the subject in giving them tools to be able to dwell in the subject. The scope of the book is ample and many of the chapters would have been helped by examples from psychopathology including the ones on embodiement, self-awareness and Other minds. Hopefully if the book runs to further editions this may be remedied.

Mind the Gap: Acknowledging Differences in the Analytic and Continental Traditions

An exemplar of someone who draws on both the analytic and continental is Stanley Cavell (1979) for example in The Claim of Reason, but unlike Smith he acknowledges the split of mind between the two traditions and integrates the two styles of philosophizing into his own original voice. I would argue that trying to overcome the divide between the two traditions necessitates at least acknowledging that there is a divide that needs to be overcome rather than refusing to talk about it. This is especially important in an introductory text as students may not be aware of the history of the different practices in Anglophone and Continental institutions. How the divide came to be is not something I will go into here, but that there is a difference seems undeniable. The ability to relate the philosophers from the different traditions takes careful handling as the student introduced to a particular philosopher may read up on a reference and be left in perplexity as to how the writing of someone in the continental tradition relates to what they have done before in philosophy. Heidegger’s neologisms can be a large stumbling block to someone trying to read the primary text for the first time and may put the student off a seminal work in philosophy unless given guidance on what to expect. The frequent references to Derrida by Smith would lead the uninitiated to think that reading his texts is a straight forward matter as there is no acknowledgement that they can be quite difficult to enter into without some background contextualization. Although his exposition of various concepts in the work of the authors he focuses on are very clear, this aspect of Phenomenology needs addressing by Smith. Again to convict him of missing out something when the scope of the work seems constrained by the fact it is introductory would seem unfair. However, as Husserl and Heidegger are such important figures to understanding works by Derrida, Levinas and Ricoeur it would have made sense to outline their place in what has been known as the ‘Continental’ tradition as a guide for future reading and also to point out that a straightforward transposition to the concerns of contemporary anglophone philosophy can require a translation of concepts. To be fair to Smith he does a good job of combining the two perspectives but this is because he focuses on matters that are the concern of the two traditions such as intentionality rather than issues mainly from the continental tradition such as authenticity, or the Nothing that might well be of interest to more inquisitive students.

Is Phenomenology a Scientific Enterprise?

The question of method permeates Smith’s book in the way he presents the subject matter. He seems to come down on the side of Husserl that Phenomenology is a science of experiences and its methods are comparing phenomenological descriptions in a collaborative deductive exercise that will eventually lead to the truth of the structure of experience. In contrast to this he gives an airing to Heidegger’s ‘Hermeneutic Phenomenology’ but does not follow through on an analysis of this method of Phenomenology, one that requires a greater role for culture in elucidating the structures of experience. Heidegger’s method is a more historically and literary based questioning of experience.  Although it includes the critique of others in advancing the subject, the validity of its claims are based on the authenticity of the self-questioning involved. To put it another way, Husserl’s method relies on the paradigm of a scientific inquiry whereas Heidegger’s method points to the paradigm of a religious confession where the truth of the matter is based on the honesty and self-examination of the questioner. Heidegger’s method has been hugely influential in the continental tradition so this method should not be dismissed out of hand. Modern anglophone philosophy would seem to side on the whole with Husserl’s tendencies, but it should be noted that Wittgenstein’s (1963) Philosophical Investigations, an important work for inheritors of the analytic tradition, starts by quoting Augustine’s Confessions suggesting that Wittgenstein was not wholly adverse to Heidegger’s conception of method in philosophy. So to raise the question in earnest, which method would seem to have the most going for it? As this question goes beyond the scope of a book review, I will only make a few brief points that suggest that the question of method might be something Smith may need to go into in more detail in future editions. Phenomenology is based on articulating experience and so honesty with ones self about the character of experience would seem to be of upmost importance. This would involve trying to find the truth for yourself at a distance from the opinions inherited from others and your upbringing and this itself is perhaps the kernel of truth in Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. This is not to say that others should be ignored but rather that the role of the other is to help you to better scrutinize yourself, what Heidegger terms ‘being-ahead’ of the another person and trying to help someone attain transparency to themselves. The other person’s role is to articulate the internal voice of conscience. This suggests that virtue is indeed required to perform the aims of Phenomenology adequately and further hints that one should rely upon one’s own self-examination rather than looking for the results to be given through a collaborative, objective, science-like enterprise. Smith presents the results of the conclusions of his chapters in the style of the latter; hopefully I have raised sufficient doubt about the necessity of that method to make plausible the idea that an introductory text in Phenomenology, to be fair to the subject matter, requires more reflection on the method of its composition.


Experiencing Phenomenology is a bold attempt to provide access for beginners to the wealth of a tradition that holds out the hope of charting human subjectivity. In his book Smith accomplishes his aim with a deft handling. The critique of the text provided here is merely to point out some of the structural problems that could be addressed to further his aims in future editions. In ignoring the analytic-continental divide Smith seems to be writing from the perspective that questions of method and presentation have already been decided in favour of the paradigm of science and the doubts I have raised here should help the reader to keep this as an open question. Aside from this I would thoroughly recommend the text to undergraduate students and scholars keen to look at Phenomenology in dialogue with the analytic tradition while noting that there are important issues that explicitly need addressing in order to avoid confusion.



Cavell, S. 1979. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gadamer, H. G. 2004. Truth and Method 2nd Revised Edition. trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. Marshall. London: Continuum.

Heidegger, M. 1962. Being and Time. trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Heidegger, M. 2001. Zollikon Seminars: Protocols-Conversations-Letters. trans. M. Franz and R. Askay. ed. M. Boss. Illinois: Northwestern University Press .

Jaspers, K. 1997. General Psychopathology. Volume 1. trans. J. Hoenig and M. Hamilton. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Smith, J. 2016. Experiencing Phenomenology: An Introduction. Oxford: Routledge.

Wittgenstein, L. 1963. Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

[1] I shall refer to ‘Phenomenology’ with a capital, for the reason that, as I argue in the text, I do not believe it is possible to separate the subject from an understanding of its tradition.

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