Alexander Schnell: Was ist Phänomenologie?

Was ist Phänomenologie? Book Cover Was ist Phänomenologie?
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Alexander Schnell
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Reviewed by: Daniel Sobota (Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences)

Phenomenology as Transcendental Speculative Idealism


The book by Alexander Schnell, a professor of theoretical philosophy at University of Wuppertal, bearing the title Was ist Phänomenologie? (What is Phenomenology?), is his third book written in German. The book presents the conception of phenomenology understood as speculative transcendental idealism. To a large extent it refers to Schnell’s prior investigations, such as in his first German-edited book Hinaus. Entwürfe zu einer phänomenologischen Metaphysik und Anthropologie (Würzburg, Königshausen & Neumann, Orbis Phaenomenologicus (Studien), Nr. 24, 2011, 160).  This book which will be reviewed here consists of a Preface and three parts, each of which is subdivided into two chapters. The length of this book—relative to its gravity and the complexity of the question included in its title—suggests that Schnell’s new book (in a similar vein to his Hinaus) is a systematic presentation of an idea; a well-thought project rather than a complete system of phenomenological philosophy.

Schnell’s project is intended to answer two fundamental questions: 1) How do we understood phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” (that is, “tactile,” “concrete,” “hard,” etc.) concept of being with respect to reality? What is at stake here is the possibility of reconciling an epistemological question about legitimizing cognition with the ontological character of phenomenology. In other words, Schnell’s agenda aims at reconciling the goals and methods of phenomenology pursued by Husserl and Heidegger, respectively. To reach this goal, Schnell delivers an argument which combines three distinct “ways” out of a possible four: 1) it presents the idiosyncrasies of the phenomenological method; 2) it points to the heritage of German idealism and English empiricism as the philosophico-historical origins of phenomenology; 3) it polemizes with Quentin Meillassoux’ speculative realism and puts forward a phenomenological-transcendental grounding of the concept of reality. The fourth way, which would consider specific investigations of phenomenological problems, not counting the issue of correlationism (Korrelationismus) and sense-formation (Sinnbildung), lies outside the author’s interest.

The book is intended not to be a historical or systematic introduction to phenomenology, but rather an outline of the task which we can label, quoting Eugen Fink, as a “phenomenological idea of grounding.” When asked about the possibility of uniformizing such distinct standpoints as Husserl’s, Heidegger’s, Merleau-Ponty’s, Fink’s, Levinas’s, and Richir’s into a common phenomenological “school” Schnell replies that phenomenology from its very beginning was a project which has been (despite many differences in the methods of its realization) characterized by a common philosophical horizon and direction of thinking. In his view, this common denominator is transcendental philosophy.

Phenomenology is a philosophical project emerging from a critical diagnosis of western culture in the 20th century. Opposing the general cultural tendency to reduce the dimensions of sense and being to pure facts, the point of departure for phenomenology is to note that whatever appears to us is given to our consciousness and that the appearance of things presupposes the idea of correlation. The only object of phenomenology is intentionality or original phenomenological correlation, which is the transcendental field for constituting any sense, including the sense of the real world.

Schnell operationalizes the conceptual core of phenemenology by the following four points: firstly, double (both ontological and gnoseological) presuppositionlessness; secondly, genetic givenness, which, due to the fact that it is just being drawn out, it is not priorly given; thirdly, the above-mentioned correlativity; and finally intelligibilization, which states that instead of exploring Being and justifying or explaining cognition, phenomenology is oriented at investigating sense and “rendering the idea of cognition comprehensible”.

As far the phenomenological method is concerned (chapter 1), with which phenomenology as such happens to be identified, Schnell points to four points of convergence for the shaping of sense: transcendentality, meaningfulness, eidetics and correlativity. The first point reduces to the correlation between thinking and Being (Fichte), with this correlation being enabled by way of “transcendental experience,” or opening the field of sense constitution. That is why the second sense characterizes the phenomenological method as investigations oriented at sense, or as an attempt to make things comprehensible. After Heidegger, we can describe said sense as the “with respect to what” of each comprehension. The third moment, that is eidetics, protects the phenomenological cognition from the threat of collapsing into investigating fact (contra psychologism). Eventually, the fourth moment has already been mentioned in the context of the concept of transcendentality; on the grounds of phenomenology, correlation proceeds in a three-fold manner: 1) It is still a pre-phenomenological correlation between the subject and object of experience; 2) Strictly phenomenological correlation of noetic-noematic nature; 3) Deep pre-phenomenal correlation, understood as pre-immanence, pure anonymity. With these three points mentioned above serving as a point of departure, one can point to four fundamental axes of the phenomenological method 1) Epoché and reduction; the former means suspension of judgement, as characteristic of the natural approach, whereas the latter means a turn to transcendental subjectivity. Additionally there is 2) Eidetic variation, 3) Phenomenological description, and 4) Phenomenological construction. What merits attention is a complex description of the eidetic variation, with the description in question introducing a characteristically phenomenological concept of essence. This very concept appears to be quite different from what traditional philosophy understands by essence (as opposed, on the latter view, to facts and particulars). From the point of view of the well-known opposition of essence and phenomenological fact, Eidos is something third. Across all these constituents of the phenomenological method, Schnell stresses their “creative,” “constructive”, and speculative character. There is a relation of mutual dependence between the objects of phenomenology and the existence of the phenomenological method.

There is another concept related to the above-delineated phenomenological method; namely, the concept of understanding, which makes the Husserlian phenomenology receptive to Heideggerian motifs (chapter II). The concept of understanding operates within a tension between the Self and the Other; that is between the Self and what is other than myself. As an element of the phenomenological method, the previously mentioned concept renders phenomenology capable of addressing the problem of legitimizing (a problem that haunts the humanities) claims for truth and epistemic accomplishments of the sciences. Schnell brings out a methodical outline of understanding in two steps. First, he refers to historical conceptions of understanding in the thought of Heidegger and Fichte. Second, he heeds two aspects of understanding which the afore-mentioned thinkers failed to consider and which are, however, essential to the phenomenological understanding. Just as in the previous considerations related to a method, also at this point, the author emphasizes a ‘creative’ and active character of the phenomenological method, the aspect of which is understanding itself. The said character manifests itself, first and foremost, in the concept of projection (Heidegger); and second – in the self-interpretation of the Self, which understands something; third – in the negative activity of differentiation (Fichte); fourth – in the fixation; that is, in holding of what is to be comprehended, during which within the Self there emerges some distance to itself; fifth, in the “phenomenalization” of what is incomprehensible, which constitutes a sort of base for the comprehensible. The phenomenalization in question, involving the a priori extension of the field of comprehensibility, is achieved by way of “the phenomenological construction”; namely, “genetization.” Generally speaking, phenomenology as a method means an incessant “going back to things in themselves”; or, to put it more accurately, going “beyond things” and towards the open horizon which makes things appear to us in the first place. In this open horizon, there is eventually something irreducible, something given which is not to be identified with any “data” but rather with something “given” in the process of the phenomenological construction. This will be addressed further along.

Chapter III points to another route towards phenomenology. This route goes across philosophico-historical reflection which is supposed to elucidate “what is not thought about” in the phenomenological method. The idea of grounding, constituting a guiding idea of phenomenology itself, derives its motifs from two traditions: classical German philosophy and English empiricism of the 17th century. Resorting to the pronouncements of Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas, Schnell notes that phenomenology is possible only as idealism which combines in itself both a transcendental and ontological dimension. The premises of this reasoning are to be found in classical German philosophy, especially in Fichte, according to whom one legitimizes cognition by virtue of non-sensory intuitive cognition.  The intuitive legitimization of cognition has different modi. First and foremost, it refers to the first level of justifying cognition. That is, it refers to the level of the phenomenological description of immanent data of consciousness. At a second stage, with this stage entering the sphere of pre-immanence, aware (or conscious) experience must be supplemented with the annihilation of occurring closures. The positive side of annihilation is the already-mentioned construction. Its intuitive dimension is instantiated as history, conceived of as genesis; that is habitualizations and sedimentations. These are creative accomplishments of a phenomenologist who constructs whatever is necessary for validating cognition at the deepest level. This is the lesson from Kant. However, Fichte goes even further than Husserl by demonstrating in the double reflection how what enables cognition is possible: how are conditions of possibility possible themselves? On the grounds of phenomenology, a similar scheme of conduct is realized by the Heideggerian existentiell being-towards-death, which, grounding the “entirety” of Dasein, is labelled as “enabling” (Ermöglichung) what constitutes the “possibility of impossibility”, and hence, death. Searching for the possibility of combining an epistemological and ontological aspect of the “idea of grounding”, Schnell evokes a dispute between Fichte and Schelling. According to the latter, in order to legitimize knowledge, it is not sufficient to resort to a form of knowledge as such. One should also take into consideration its content. This strict relations between the constituting and the constituted was recognized within the realm of phenomenology by Levinas, who speaks of “the relations of mutual conditioning.” To rebut an indictment of formalism, which is in turn related to an indictment of solipsism, one should demonstrate what the immanent link between thinking and Being consists in. The explication of this relations proceeds in reference to three categories and dimensions: truth, constitution, and genesis. Regarding truth: On the basis of the analyses of experience, Husserl demonstrates in what way “truth is an a priori form of any reference to the world.” Regarding constitution: On the level of the sphere of immanence, it is proved that every actual consciousness is surrounded by the horizons of potentiality, which opens up the way towards “new ontology” (Levinas), although it must be conceded that thinking constitutes Being. The latter each and every time transcends thinking, thus founding the former’s accomplishments.  On the level of pre-immanence, what is revealed is the sphere of ‘pre-being’, the aspects of which are “subject” and “object”. Therefore, it transpires that “transcendental constitution is an ontological founding” (100). Regarding genesis: At the level of transcendental genesis, what takes place is what Levinas labels as “diachrony” and Fichte – “the reflection on reflection”. Every relation of conditioning presupposes a shift between registers, wherein one asserts either presence or absence – depending on the perspective assumed: be it the conditioning or the conditioned. Then again, what applies at this point is the trope of enabling doubling. Due to the complexity of the issue under scrutiny and its concise presentation in Schnell’s book, what we can say herein is that it is only at the level which Heidegger calls “fundamental happening,” that what is eventually reconciled is the need to make cognition comprehensible and founding everything upon Being itself.

A second historico-background for Husserlian phenomenology, next to German classical philosophy and of equally importance, is English empiricism (chapter IV). Husserl dedicated much attention to the Humean achievements particularly towards the end of his life; that is, in the period in which—on the one hand—he recognized Lebenswelt as a primary category of his phenomenology—and on the other hand—he described phenomenology as reflection on history. The latter characterization leads to the conclusion that the crisis of science results from its “objectivism”, which roughly means its underestimation of the life-world. The said objectivism supersedes the world of natural approach with a mathematical substrate, understood as a being in itself. And it is precisely in Hume’s thought that soul constitutes the world out of impression by virtue of fantasy that Husserl finds the motifs which shake the foundations of this objectivism. In his phenomenological considerations Husserl tries to give a positive account of how consciousness, including the acts of imagination, constitutes the world “in itself” and legitimizes the pretense of modern sciences for absolute truth. In Husserl’s view, unlike in Kant’s, the major problem in Hume’s thought is not the problem of induction, but the problem of making comprehensible this “naïve obviousness of the certainty of the world” which ordinary and scientific consciousness feeds on. To solve this problem, Husserl enters transcendental considerations which are supposed to disclose the transcendental life of subjectivity at the very foundations of “the certainty of the world.” For this purpose, he develops the “world-life reduction”, which is supposed to liberate one’s perception from the naïve certainty of the world and to direct it towards a priori, inhering in Lebenswelt. That is, to the hidden correlation of the world and the consciousness thereof; to “spiritual actions” which constitute all the meaningful creations. Only via this route is one able to, on the one hand, show whence sciences derive their claim for universal validity; and on the other, to make comprehensible the naïve obviousness surrounding the life-world. According to Husserl, the validity of sciences has its foundations in the sense of being in the life-world, from the “synthetic wholeness” of its transcendental achievements.

From the above-described perspective of “the science of Lebenswelt,” Husserl conducts a critical reinterpretation of five fundamental motifs of earlier phenomenology: 1) The grounding horizon of the legitimization of cognition, 2) Intuition as the principle of all principles, 3) The most fundamental role of actual perception, 4) Description as a basic method of phenomenology, and 5) Hegemony of the constructing Ego. Regarding the five above-listed motifs in turn: 1) Whereas in his writings dating back to the twenties, Husserl mainly aimed at justifying any cognition, in his notes and lectures from the thirties he describes the task of phenomenology as making comprehensible, which introduces the process of sense-formation and exposes the significance of intersubjectivity, or actually, strictly speaking, intersubjectivity of “anonymous” character. Such intersubjectivitity requires not reduction but “in-duction” (Latin inductio literally means: introduction) into the realm of what is pre-subjective.  2) This anonymous subjectivity calls into question the principle of all principles; or to put it more clearly, the primacy of intuition as far as sense-formation goes.  3) This in turn gives rise to contesting the primacy of actual perception as a legitimizing source of all cognitive references made by consciousness to objects. Instead, contesting the above can count in favour of the modes of actualization realized by imagination. 4) Reaching the transcendental non-intuitive foundation of sense-formation requires that it should be recognized and conceded that philosophy may be a “universal science” only as a non-objective science. There is no “descriptive science on transcendental being and life”, says Husserl. This implies that the process of making comprehensible must avail itself of a different notion of truth from the one traditionally attributed to objective sciences. 5) The last difficulty concerns the relations between the constituted world and the constituting subjectivity. Here we are facing the following dilemma: either we preserve the participation of the subject in the word, which would make the world-constitution non-radical. Or, alternatively, the constitution is radical, and then what would be required is that the subjecthood, as related to the world, is to be rescinded. Therefore, at this point there occurs some tension between the natural approach to the world and the transcendental approach. To elucidate this tension, it takes the introduction—as a “foundation” of the world constitution—of the self-destructive subjecthood. In Husserl, this paradox is solved by projecting it onto the problem of the relations between primordial-Self and intersubjectivity and between primordial self and objectified worldly self.           

This very reference to the lowest layers of the transcendental life and being is reminiscent of the issue of the Absolute. Schnell raises this issue with reference to the dispute having been going on since the critique of phenomenology launched by “speculative realism,” represented by Quentin Meillassoux (chapter V). According to the latter thinker, phenomenology is purportedly the contemporary paradigm case of the philosophical standpoint, labelled as correlationism, wherein there is no possibility of thinking a being in itself without simultaneously relating this very being to thinking itself. Schnell takes the sting out of these indictments in four steps.

The main argument against the phenomenological correlationism is to be the one from ancestrality. The main thrust of the argument is the claim that any version of correlationism faces an insuperable problem posed by the fact of existence of the events prior to the emergence of conscious beings who could have experienced these events. This argument is easy to refute from the perspective of transcendentalism. Neither Kant’s philosophy nor Husserl’s imply that something exists insofar as it is experienced by empirical persons. Instead, what the above philosophies deal with are the conditions of possibility of possible experience. Believing that the transcendental consciousness must be always embodied in a physical person and defining what is possible in terms of the lack of what is actual, Meillassoux misunderstands the transcendental status of phenomenological subjecthood and its function of making comprehensible what is genuinely possible. It is erroneous to conceive of the relation of phenomenology to reality in the same vein and at the same level as one conceives of the relation of natural sciences to reality. For phenomenology, after applying the epoché, reality appears to us as a phenomenon; a phenomenologist does not ask whether the said phenomenon exists or existed; rather, he asks about its sense: how does the past reality which no empirical person could in fact experience appear to us?

Apart from that in the process of a critical analysis speculative realism proves to be correlationism in disguise. According to Schnell, Meilassoux’s indictments derive from the assumption of a false external attitude towards phenomenology.

A positive side of the discussion is the attempt to engage phenomenology in elucidating the profoundest foundations of the correlation, which should simultaneously ensure the meaningfulness of what is – in both daily and scientific experience understood as reality it itself. Schnell brings up “correlational hypophysics” (Greek hipo – under), which is supposed—in order to fully realize the task of materializing the “idea of the grounding of phenomenology” to life—to elaborate the “transcendental matrix of correlationism” (151). In the course of elaborating this very idea, the three fundamental motifs of correlationism are uncovered. First and foremost, it is to be established what is the foundation and essence of correlation; second, what is the principle of making phenomenological cognition possible and—along with this—of granting sense; third, what phenomenological reflection consists in. Therefore, what makes up the transcendental matrix of correlationism are three motifs: correlation, sense and reflection.

Schnell outlines the said three motifs in the following manner. The essence of correlation is—following Heidegger—“horizon-opening anticipating.”  It is this concept that captures the intuitive sense of what appears to us; namely the very appearing to us itself. On the other hand, reflection does not imply a subject’s turning to itself. Rather, it means the already-mentioned “introduction (induction) into a self-reflective processualness of sense-formation” (153). Phenomenological reflection is reflection over both “borderline structures of phenomenality and what phenomenality enables”. What is thereby meant is a “characteristic performance of a phenomenologically relevant form of reflection” (154). Schnell distinguishes three types of induction, which correspond with three layers of the transcendental matrix of correlation. At the first stage of reflection, there emerges an intentional structure of consciousness, designing sense and making cognition comprehensible. Each of these structures have a dualistic form: intentionality is divided between a subject and object; what designing sense consists in is its creation and the reception thereof; making cognition comprehensible is spread between the original (Urbild) and a copy (Abbild). At the second stage, these dualities get both deepened and dynamized: consciousness becomes self-consciousness, the apparently ultimate truth of fulfilling intentions is getting hermeneutically distanced and the relations between the original and a copy within the principle of cognition becomes malleable in the process of the simultaneous designing and annihilating. Eventually, at the third stage, self-reflection becomes inward (verinnerlichende) self-reflection. First, this self-reflection opens a pre-phenomenal, pre-immanent sphere of phenomenological constitution; second, it deepens the hermeneutic truth and elevates it to the rank of a generative truth.  In place of what is given, a construction emerges. The example of the latter is Husserl’s phenomenological construction of original temporality, included in Bernauer Manuskripten. Third, what is subject to inward reflection is also establishing and destroying – both interwoven with the principle of cognition; at this stage, the reflection becomes the reflecting (Reflektieren), which highlights the workings (laws) of reflection itself (Reflexionsgesetzmäßigkeit). What is at stake here is to make the very act of making possible transparent. What is thereby meant is to enable the enabling, which characterizes the nature of what is transcendental. These workings (laws) of reflection express—next to making understanding possible—enabling being. For, eventually, what we deal with at the lowest level of what is transcendental is not pure reflective asserting. Rather, it is something which anticipates the former and which reduces to the annihilation of the experienced positiveness of conditions and to the creation of these conditions and of being as a “surplus,” with the said surplus being supposed to serve as ontological foundations to the conditions in question. “Being is a reflection on reflection” (159). “It is being that is ‘ground’ of any reality; it is not priorly given or assumed but rather genetically constructed, reflectively geneticized ‘medium of reality’” (159). With reference to the dispute with Meilassoux, Schnell claims that “the fundamental result of phenomenological speculative idealism ‘is a concept of being that can be classified as the’ Absolute”. It does not coincide with reality. It does not denote any entity. Instead, it can be characterized in the following three-fold manner. 1) Being is a prior being, “pre-being”; it denotes a pre-immanent realm of openness, an “ontological status of transcendental a priori” (161); 2) Being is a surplus; 3) Being is identified grounding.

In the last chapter (VI), Schnell returns to the question of reality. He searches for the motives for raising this question in historico-philosophical problematics of modernity, inaugurated by Descartes and then promptly revolutionized by transcendental philosophy. From this perspective, one can clearly see that the question of reality already appeared in the context of epistemological problematics, within which reality is a concept standing in contradistinction to the subjective experiences of imagination, dream or methodically complex intellectual operations. The Kantian attempt to redefine the problem introduces the idea of correlationism.  However, even this idea is originally of purely epistemological character, with which, on the grounds of phenomenology, only Heidegger clearly polemizes.

According to Schnell, one can distinguish four fundamental forms of correlationism. The first of them is to be found in Kant: it is a correlation of judgement and self-consciousness. The second is introduced by Fichte: it is a correlation of Being and thinking. The third one—phenomenological—is inaugurated by Husserl: it is the intentional correlation. The fourth one stems derives from Heidegger: it is the correlation of being-in-the-world. Schnell pauses to consider the third form of correlation, known mainly from late writings and manuscripts by Husserl in which he develops his investigations pertaining to genetic phenomenology. He combines the notion of constitution with the one of genesis. As Husserl says:

“Indem die Phänomenologie der Genesis dem ursprünglichen Werden im Zeitstrom, das selbst ein ursprünglich konstituierendes Werden ist, und den genetisch fungierenden sogenannten „Motivationen” nachgeht, zeigt sie, wie Bewusstsein aus Bewusstsein wird, wie dabei im Werden sich immerfort auch konstitutive Leistung vollzieht(Hua XIV, 41).

The said history of consciousness is given in transcendental experience. The key concept of genetic phenomenology is the category of  “sense-formation” (Sinnbildung). Schnell distinguishes three semantic moments of the process in question: the constituting moment (bildend-erzeugende), the moment of imagination (Einbildung), and the one introduced by Marc Richir: the constituting-schematizing moment (bildend-schematisierende). With reference to Richir, who was searching for the novel grounding of phenomenology, Schnell highlights the third moment and claims that at the very bottom of any act of a cognizing subject referring to Being, there is no perception but fantasy (certainly, as conceived of in the transcendental sense). Referring to the transcendental concept of an image, Schnell attempts—by way of “transcendental induction”—to demonstrate “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation,” which allows for making both cognition and reality comprehensible. According to Schnell, what is an image is both reality and the said pre-phenomenon. In three steps of reflection, Schnell constructs “the pre-phenomenon of sense-formation.” In the above-mentioned first step of reflection, one constructs an empty concept of reflection (Abbild) which, in the second step of reflection (that is, during self-reflection) is endowed with some content. This in turn means that the former as an empty concept gets annihilated. The construction thus assumes a malleable form. Finally, during the third step of construction, which is an inward reflection, reflection starts manifesting itself as reflection with its lawfulness, which means that “each transcendental relations of conditioning implies its own enabling doubling” (178); namely, the enabling of enabling. The last sections bring an answer to two originally posed questions: 1) How may we understand phenomenological cognition in its most radical form? and 2) How do we reconcile a turn to transcendental subjectivity—being so characteristic of phenomenology as such—with the grounding of the “robust” concept of being with respect to reality? The first question is replied to with “the principle of elucidating phenomenological knowledge-claims”, which is a gradually inward reflection. By revealing its own workings (laws), this reflection leads to an answer to the second question: the possibility of reconciling epistemological and ontological features of phenomenology is to be found in the concept of phenomenality as “durable steadfastness” (ausstehende Inständigkeit) (Heidegger). Reality, as non-theoretically understood, is a “trace” of a mutual relationship of immanence (endogenesis) and transcendence (exogenesis); it is “onto-eis-ec-stasis”. “Reality is not pure being-in-itself, neither only being-for-myself, but rather, a steadfastly (inständig) discovered and geneticized being-outside-of” (181).

The boldness of some of Schnell’s ideas are inversely proportional to the detailedness of their respective explications; that is why, the last words of the book—since it is devoid of a conclusion proper—is the statement that all the considerations included therein are of preliminary nature and they call for further elaboration.

At the end, let us take the liberty of posing several questions of a polemical-critical nature. Undoubtedly, the content of the book evidences the fact that the author is well-versed in the phenomenological problematics and he freely chooses the issue that he deems necessary to highlight the identity and the peculiarities of phenomenology. However, it raises the following questions: To what extent do Schnell’s decisions related to the selection of problematics stem from what phenomenology as such is? To what extent do those questions stem from the fact that the author desires to validate his vision—rather arbitrarily assumed—of what, in his opinion, phenomenology may be? Furthermore, the next question is this: To what extent is the reconstruction of the motifs selected by Schnell—the motifs being known to the phenomenological movement—an apt interpretation? And to what extent is this interpretation distorted, taking into account the goal motivating the author’s very enterprise? What is the purpose of Schnell’s considerations? It seems that the purpose may be most easily identified in the light of the title of the scrutinized work. In other words, what is at stake is an answer to the question of what phenomenology is. Does the author succeed in reaching his goal?

Certainly, due to its concise and cursory nature, Schnell’s work requires the reader to be significantly acquainted with intricacies of the problematics of phenomenology. In this sense, the book is not, thematically and historically speaking, of introductory character, which, if it were, would make it useful to the adherents of phenomenology barely initiated into the art of philosophizing in this fashion. Quite the contrary, the beginning of Schnell’s considerations require a higher level of prior knowledge on the part of his readers. Certainly, the above does not translate into any sort of indictment. Still, it must be conceded that Husserl’s wrote that a phenomenologist is always a beginner; yet, this dictum should not be construed as related to the amateur’s practice. Husserl’s conviction about the introductory character of phenomenology gives rise to another quite distinct problem. Phenomenology is an introductory science in the five-fold sense: 1) It is a science about origins; 2) It a science designed from scratch; namely, by dint of systematic maneuvers which are supposed to ensure to phenomenology relevant sourceness and presuppositionlessness; 3) It is a point of departure for other sciences; 4) It is located at the beginning of its historical development; and, eventually 5) It is of preliminary nature. Phenomenology is essentially a research work, it is active searching, questioning, also going astray and getting lost. By contrast, Schnell’s work is a systematic presentation of ideas and of the results of phenomenological analyses – genuinely formidable, coherent construction which, albeit sketchily presented, is ex hypothesi a self-confident attempt at a philosophical system. In this sense, the scrutinized work alludes to all those attempts which can be subsumed under the umbrella term of German idealism. It is especially Kant and Fichte, to whom Schnell makes frequent historical references, that used to present their respective philosophies in a rudimentary form which was meant to eventually assume the form of a system. Hence, the title of Schnell’s book—instead of Was ist Phänomenologie?—should rather be: Ein Entwurf der Phänomenologie als spekulativer transzendentaler Idealismus. Counter to the generality of the title given by Schnell—which not only assumes the form of an interrogative but also uses the word Phänomenologie without any article, thus implying that the text shall concern the most general idea of phenomenology taking into account its most extreme thematic and historical instantiations—all the considerations contained herein are from the very beginning dedicated to the presentation of a single form of phenomenology, that is the one which is understood in the light of “the idea of grounding” (E. Fink). It seems that the element most wanting in Schnell’s consideration is the ability “to maintain the state of questionness” (“what is phenomenology?”). After all, the said ability is—as I believe—a distinctive feature of phenomenology as well as its trademark, thus distinguishing it from the other movements in the history of philosophy. The said traits are not only distinctive features marking the realm of phenomenology off against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. They also constitute its philosophical mission, so to speak. Elevating the motif of the question to the rank of a fundamental methodological directive—which entails the altered understanding of cognition and being—it dissociates itself from the question of oblivion, with the oblivion having lasted since the times of Aristotle. To revoke the question is to restore to philosophy its proper dimension of self-realization. And this is what Kant’s “Copernican turn” as well as its misunderstanding on the part of Kant’s German successors essentially consist in. By the same token, this is what the historical importance of phenomenology consists in too. That is why, if one attempts to understand phenomenology through the eyes of historico-philosophical motifs known to the history of philosophy—which, albeit important and educational in itself, threatens to obfuscate the original contribution made by phenomenology—it is precisely in Kant’s ‘Copernican turn’ that one should look for creative affinity.

After all, grasping phenomenology in the light of the question (stated by the title of the reviewed book) shows more than merely the peculiarities of phenomenology against the backdrop of the history of philosophy. By posing the question of what phenomenology is and “remaining in this state of questionness,” one uncovers phenomenology, on the one hand, as a domain or problems; and on the other hand – as an open field of different possibilities of understanding and solving them. Certainly, these are not pure possibilities but possibilities of historical nature. The internal richness of the possibilities of the idea of phenomenology, and which is what we can aptly label as its internal problematicity, somehow a priori resists any attempt to exclusively identify phenomenology with one of these possibilities. This principle applies both to its thematic and historical aspect. The question opens its own historicalness of phenomenology, with this historicalness directing us to philosophico-historical aspect of the phenomenological movement.  One would be ill-advised to reduce this internal problematicity either to a specific set of problems or to only selected attempts at solving them. However, in the context of this problem, Schnell’s work is of regrettably one-sided character. For instance, despite Schnell’s scholarly competence, as indubitably evidenced by his intellectual accomplishments, his book almost entirely skips the discussions on and transformations in the understanding of phenomenology known from, say, the writings by French phenomenologists of the post-war period (the only exception being sporadically mentioned Emannuel Levinas and Marc Richir). Certainly, it would be very bad if any subsequent attempt to raise the question of “what is phenomenology” similarly dismissed Schnell’s work.

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