Reviewed by: Robert Farrugia (University of Malta)
From its onset, phenomenology has been highly concerned with new beginnings. Its insistent demand to relearn how to see things in a new light is evident not only in its method but also in the phenomenologists’ relentless dedication to reintroduce and describe anew this project in myriad ways, time and time again, through their works and lectures to a variety of audiences. One of the main driving forces is that the notion of ‘beginning’, in phenomenology, takes on a wider and fuller meaning: to go back, again and again. This is precisely because phenomenology takes the starting position very seriously.
Chad Engelland’s book, Phenomenology, is both for beginners and about new beginnings; an invitation to re-examine and renew what it means to be a philosopher by analysing how we experience our very own experiences. In his own words, “philosophy is a rigorous intensification of ordinary reflection, and phenomenology is a renewal of philosophy” (151). Engelland’s book is not just a highly accessible introduction to this 20th century movement but, moreover, it is a way (the phenomenological how) of presenting the subject itself. The content list Engelland presents is itself not conventional for academic books introducing phenomenology. Instead of the typical chapters titled ‘intentionality’ or ‘consciousness’ we find chapter titles such as ‘love’ and ‘wonder’. Nevertheless, all the key concepts and main thinkers are mentioned within these chapters throughout the book, in Engelland’s own way of offering them. When one starts reading his book, it becomes immediately clear that the author intends the reader to read this work not as a mere theoretical exercise but, rather, as a means of shifting from the conceptual to the experiential. In many ways, this book is a guide on how to do phenomenology on a daily basis.
As Engelland immediately points out in his preface, phenomenology invites us to look back again in order to bring to our attention that which was previously unnoticed and hidden from us. This call for renewal summons one to embark on a quest of regaining a sense of wonder and fascination with the world. It is a call to revisit that which we take for granted and, as a result, end up filtering and losing significant details about both the world and ourselves as the ones undergoing experiences.
Throughout his whole book, Engelland makes sure that significant words are not taken lightly as he frequently stops and reflects on them. In his preface, he gives us an insight on the word ‘fascinate’ as it is understood in its original meaning: to be under a spell. As he maintains, this fascination is precisely what phenomenology brings back in philosophy: an enterprise that dazzles, beguiles and bewitches us. This sense of fascination is not here understood as one which closes us on ourselves, in turn making us insensitive to the ordinary world but, rather, one which projects us outwards towards the world which, in turn, becomes understood in a fuller, richer and wider sense, since “phenomenology fascinates by restoring charm to the things of this world” (xii). It is, moreover, an enterprise which “captures our hearts by setting us free” (xii), allowing us to explore the truth of things together with others, via our very own shared experiences.
In his first chapter, titled ‘To the things themselves’, Engelland starts by giving a concise description of what phenomenology is: “the experience of experience” (2). Just as Husserl had struggled so hard to reopen up a space for philosophy in an overly growing scientific world, Engelland grapples with the physicists who, in our time, have proclaimed the death of philosophy. What this proclamation entails is the self-aggrandizement of the scientific view which ends up reducing all knowledge to its own episteme. It is this scientific reduction which phenomenology must resist, in order to shift from a view from nowhere towards a view from somewhere. Scientists themselves must presuppose this latter subjective view in order to do science: “there would be no science if there were no scientists” (5), for it is the very act of wondering that gives rise to science itself. In turn, as Engelland explains, phenomenology comes on the scene with its own reduction: the transcendental reduction – which allows us to step back in order to retrace how we experience things. He argues that just as biology is the study of being qua biological life, phenomenology, as a science in itself, studies being qua appearances – phenomena. However, Engelland stops to reflect on what is here meant by appearances. His claims is that it is not mere appearance which phenomenology studies but, moreover, the “true appearance of things” (3). In this sense, the principal goal of phenomenology is to discern the truth of experience itself; “the truth about truth itself and how it arises in our experience” (9).
One of the contributions Engelland makes here is to delineate how phenomenology cannot be understood as a mere modern epistemological enterprise. Rather, it is an inquiry in the classical investigation of the whatness of things coupled with the way, or how, these things are experienced. In this sense, Engelland argues that phenomenology brings back pre-modern philosophy within the modern epistemological paradigm by examining “how can we experience essences, and what is the essence of experience” (11). In many ways, phenomenology is both new and old, as it always seeks to make a fresh start by returning to philosophy’s origin in experience. Moreover, Engelland proposes that the centrality of a phenomenology is its publicness – which entails that such experiences are not happenings inside the brain but, instead, belong to the public world.
From the early stages of this movement, numerous phenomenologists have engaged with art to formulate and articulate their ideas. Engelland refers to this love affair between art and phenomenology in his second chapter, as he starts off by bringing into our attention Paul Cézanne’s bold emphasis on the individual things within his paintings. Merleau-Ponty had written extensively on this French artist in order to highlight that perception is not merely composed of passive impressions but, moreover, it is the activity of allowing things to show themselves as they truly are; what Husserl calls constitution. It is here that Engelland introduces the key theme of phenomenology: intentionality. Put simply, he formulates this notion by stating that “all experience is a matter experiencing something as something” (22). The author provides various ways of how our experiences appear in this way, using several examples from popular culture. However, as Engelland rightfully claims, the truly ground-breaking discovery of phenomenology is that it expresses the publicness of appearances, in opposition to the modern understanding of the privateness of things confined to the mind. His claim is that “appearances belong to the experiential world that each of us shares through our own resources” (24).
Engelland confronts Hume’s notion of subjective impressions as he finds in it a barrier which hinders any access to the things themselves. In a very concise and accessible format, which also includes sketched diagrams, the author shows the ways in which Hume and Husserl remain radically different in their conclusions: whereas Hume would conclude that we perceive mental images since our perception of things constantly changes whilst the real things remain the same, Husserl would conclude that the changing perception itself presents the same real thing in all its reality. This is because Husserl maintains that, within experiences, the changing and unchanging are necessarily intertwined. Thus, phenomenology puts forth the idea that “the thing does not hide behind its appearances. The appearances rather are the thing’s disclosure” (29). This entails that appearances put us into close contact with the public features of things; i.e. to the very being of the thing that appears. The main conclusion to this chapter is summed up into three points: 1) experiences involve a rich context which involves others, 2) experiences involve interplay of presence and absence, and 3) this interplay is what we mean by ‘world’.
Engelland also grapples with the phenomenological nuance of ‘flesh’ – the twofold experience of one’s body as both living (Leib) and physical (Körper). This means that, phenomenologically, our body can both feel and be felt; or sees and is seen. In this sense we are the perceivers and the perceived at the same time. Ultimately, as Engelland claims, “flesh opens us to explore the world and meet with not only things but also fellow explorers of thing” (46). This builds upon the idea of interplay between presence and absence since presence is always a presence to someone. Thus, experience is an active exploration accomplished by one’s flesh within the world; highlighting, yet again, this public feature of phenomenology. Engelland makes some references to child psychology to elaborate further on the significance of the body within phenomenology, arguing that it is thanks to the natural manifestation of flesh that infants learn to speak. By this he means that meaning is embodied in the world and, hence, involves body-reading rather than mind-reading.
Engelland invokes Descartes and his meditations on the appearance of the world populated by others like me. The father of modern philosophy had notoriously adopted a sceptical attitude when it comes to understanding the world, leading him to be uncertain of what he is experiencing. As a result, he categorizes the world in two kinds of things: subjects, experienced internally, and objects, experienced externally. Engelland explains how phenomenology sees this inner-outer division as an artificial construct and, hence, a pseudo-problem which needs to be dismantled: “other people do not show up in the first place as objects: they show up as fellow people” (52). This means that we have the same access to others as we do to ourselves. Here, Engelland skilfully brings into the discussion Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, Stein and Merleau-Ponty together, thinkers who, in their own ways, have all wrestled with this Cartesian problem. Emphasising the shared aims in all these phenomenologists’ ideas, Engelland maintains that “we have the world thanks to flesh and in having the world we meet with the flesh of others who likewise have the world” (57).
Speech, writing and images also occupy a central stage in Engelland’s work as, for him, they are essential to comprehend our world. His claim is that “words hold this power of enabling us to share thoughts about things even when they are absent to our perception” (60). To highlight the interplay between words and images, Engelland calls our attention to René Magritte’s popular painting, titled ‘The Treachery of Images’ (La Trahison des images), which opens up a window onto a thing which, we know, is not the thing itself. To highlight this ambiguity, the artist relies on the power of writing. Engelland uses this example as a means to show that words go beyond the visual image since the latter is always given to us in a perspectival way, hence in parts; what Husserl calls adumbrations. This entails that the perceptual object can never be given all at once from all sides. However, this is not the case with words since they do give the object as a whole, in its totality. Moreover, as Engelland maintains, speech starts with what is present but soon goes beyond, towards things which are absent; such as the past, the future, the abstract, the hidden, and the imaginary. In this sense, the ‘phenomenological’ brings about the ‘poetical’ as “phenomenology wishes to make explicit the wonderful, life-giving relation of language and experience” (72). Engelland’s point rests on the idea that phenomenology helps us appreciate the richness and multiple layers of experience which language has the ability to articulate in a variety of ways.
Ultimately, as Engelland insists, it is truth which is at the heart of phenomenology since, as he boldly claims: “there is truth, or, if you prefer, truth happens” (79). Phenomenology has from its onset resisted the reduction of truth to contingent facts such as those of biology or psychology. Nevertheless, phenomenology is not against science per se but, rather, what scientists can argue for and uphold. Thus, phenomenology’s true opponent would be anyone who denies the reality of the experience of truth and of essence. But what is the condition for the possibility of truth? Engelland’s answer is clear: “an openness that offers a place for the things of the world to become manifest as the things that they are” (83). In this sense, the starting point of phenomenology is that we are open to the natures of things, which is in itself the presupposition for all other research. Pressing this further, one can ask: how does truth happen? Engelland states that “truth is not anonymous but personal” (83). His claim is that it happens for someone by making something present as it really is. This truth is only possible because we are always already open in our very being such that things can manifest themselves to us as they truly are. In this sense, truth can happen thanks to our personal experience of things.
Engelland relentlessly brings into discussion the possibility that phenomenology can be misinterpreted to be merely the study of appearances and, therefore, is not able tell us anything about how things really are. Such an interpretation will in turn hinder the possibility of ever attaining truth about anything. Engelland sees this as a dangerous place for both philosophy and anyone in search of the true meaning of things. Our job, as he contends, is not to stop at appearances but, moreover, to find out the true appearance of things. This entails that we must search for the adequate intuition that can clear up any confusion and falsity about things in order to give us the thing itself: “it is always by true appearance that we can sort how something is from how it seems” (90). This means that seeming and being are not necessarily opposed and it is, in fact, this central point which makes phenomenology stresses upon within the philosophical tradition. Ultimately, Engelland’s aim is to defend phenomenology from falling prey to relativism: “to say that truth involves a relation between things and us does not mean that truth is relative” (93). The latter simply merges appearance to reality whilst the former distinguishes between genuine and false appearances. It is confused thinking that ends up equating phenomenology to relativism, since, as Engelland claims, “truth is a feature not of things or of us but of a modality of the relation of things to us in which things show themselves as they are and are registered by us as such” (93). In this sense, truth is always relational, hence a relation of thought to things, where thoughts are subordinated to the self-showing of things. What this entails is that our thoughts can match with things the moment things are allowed to lead and manifest themselves as they truly are. Thus, Engelland argues that phenomenology is the virtuous mean between relativism and rationalism; the former demanding that truth is simply appearance whilst the latter stating that truth does not involve appearance at all. Ultimately, what phenomenology highlights is that truth is in itself experiential and, thus, personal.
Engelland dedicates a whole chapter on a theme which has gained quite some traction in phenomenology: ‘Life’. This notion of life is a crucial component of experience since, as the author maintains, “right there in the tasting, in the viewing, there is an implicit, background experience of oneself” (99). Were it not for this experiencing of our own self, it would be impossible to delight in the experience of things. In the opening lines of this chapter, Engelland refers to the French phenomenologist Michel Henry, who has written extensively on this theme. For Henry, life is precisely this immanent self-experience; or what he sometimes calls auto-affection, and it is this experience from within that makes possible the experience of the life of the other. All this ties with the previously aforementioned twofoldness of flesh: “we perceive ourselves perceiving and we perceive others perceiving” (100). Engelland also invokes Stein as one of the early phenomenologists who had shed light on this centrality of phenomenological life to contest the limitations of a mechanistic interpretation of the world. A biological reduction of life understood as purely physiologically and outwardly does not seem to satisfy the realm of life, which must include the inward. When we encounter the other, we encounter more than their outwardness: “I see the dog sad to see me go, happy to see I have returned, and keenly interested to discover who’s at the door” (100). Engelland’s claim is that life involves a world which must be understood as interwoven with it. On this point of chiasm between life and world, Henry would have some disagreement but, for the sake of keeping the argument flowing for the intended reader, Engelland does not go into the nitty-gritty of such disputes. The author’s central aim is to show that human beings are world-forming, hence are receptive to the essences of things, and can, thus, tap into the domain of truth. Engelland defends phenomenology from being determined or undermined by our biological make-up, as it would leave us with a truth that is relative, and not transcendent and accessible to us: “it must be maintained that we humans are tapping into something that transcends the idiosyncrasies of our biology and our environment when we tap into truth” (108).
Moreover, phenomenologists aim at showing that we are responsive to this truth that arises in our experiences. In a Heideggerian sense, this entails that we care about this truth. The temporal structure of experience and the interplay of presence and absence allow truth to manifest itself to us. This points to our hold upon experiences and the way we choose to face them: either authentically (deep and meticulously) or in an inauthentic mode (shallowly and superficially). Engelland describes this shift of attitude as choosing between “being faithful to the truth we have seen and not being so faithful” (109), respectively. In his chapter on ‘Life’, Engelland also introduces the reader to the phenomenological notion of the Lifeworld: “the world of our everyday things and ordinary perception” (110). Again, he brings into the discussion the distinction between the scientific worldview and the phenomenological one. Whereas the former sees the reality of objects only in what is measurable – dimensions, mass, etc. – the latter sees the reality of objects in terms of their meaningfulness and context. But, as Engelland clearly points out, the former must assume the latter for in order to measure anything one must first perceive it as such and such an object. The life lived around inanimate objects and living beings incorporates meaningful relations and it is precisely this realm which should be prioritized over a scientific view which divorces things from our human lives. As Engelland maintains, it is because of the lifeworld that speech, gestures, feelings and our flesh happens and present themselves to others. Moreover, it is within this lifeworld that the sense of wonder springs forth to give rise to science, poetry and philosophy in the first place. In simple terms, “the contrast between the lifeworld and science is not the difference between feeling and fact, but the difference between experience and experiment” (113). In this sense, Engelland affirms that it is not the scientific objects together that bring about the lifeworld but, rather, scientific objects are made possible because of the lifeworld.
Engelland also explores the theme of ‘love’ as he dedicates a whole chapter to it, showing that this theme has a vital role within phenomenology, and philosophy in general. But, what is love? Even though this question has been puzzling philosophers throughout history, it would be fair to say it has rarely been truly investigated and given its proper prominence and attention within the history of ideas. As Dietrich von Hildebrand had exclaimed in The Heart, the affective sphere has been treated in philosophy like the “proverbial stepson” (2007, 3) with the highest rank almost always given to the intellect. Engelland’s answer is that love allows us to see what can be seen and receive what is given, since love involves a relational dimension of openness and trust between the lover and the beloved. In turn, phenomenology “lets us discover the truth of love. In doing so, it frees us to uncover the truth of things” (120). Moreover, love changes the way we see the world, and this is precisely what is at the very centre of phenomenological inquiry. Against the idea that what one loves is their own desire rather than the desired, Engelland claims that phenomenology responds to such a claim by stating that love draws us outwards, beyond our own minds, towards the beloved’s world and, in the process, makes us attain new insight of this novel world. Engelland, with references to Scheler, points out that before we are a thinking being (ens cogitans) we are a loving being (ens amans). The latte entails that we are open to the world. Ultimately, it is love that makes the intentional relation possible.
Engelland presses the question of love even further in order to elaborate on the various kinds of love that exist: 1) idolatrous love, loving something of relative value by giving it an absolute value, 2) inverted love, loving something of lesser worth over something of higher worth, 3) inadequate love, loving something with an intensity that falls short of its worth, and 4) ordo amoris (order of love), which is the one Engelland defends here against the rest. This latter kind of love questions and seeks what really is loveable and worthy of love. Engelland finds that the popular view on love as altruism offers an unfitting understanding of true love, as it leads us to focus on the others in order to avoid our own selves. However, the ordo amoris does not require denying one’s own self for the beloved. The lover’s satisfaction does not weaken love as to love another requires rightly loving oneself.
Within the same discussion, Engelland also brings in some of the central concepts in phenomenological inquiry: shame, solitude and solidarity. The experience of shame “reveals that our bodies are not analogous to slabs of meat. Instead, they are the outward face of our inward selves and are charged with personal significance” (129). This brings out the distinction between love and desire as, under the former, shame disappears. In this same light, solitude is different than loneliness, as the latter is marked by a feeling of unrest. Engelland maintains that the experience of solitude is not something negative at all. Rather, it is an experience of oneself and its orientation towards others which lies at the basis of communion, which brings in the presence of others. On the experience of solidarity, Engelland adds the involvement and participation with other persons: “participants experience themselves as meaningful parts of the whole. They take delight in working for the good of the whole and thereby experience solidarity” (133). Moreover, participants express their own distinct voices to the whole which they belong to. This promotes genuine dialogue marked by an openness to truth which is necessary for the good of the whole. Thus, genuine participation entails being perceivers of truth. Engelland sees in phenomenology not a solitary exercise of the mind but, on the contrary, an invitation to see our lives as susceptible to truth, which can be shared thanks to dialogue and good works.
In another chapter on ‘wonder’, Engelland discusses the different notions of work and play; the former understood here as centring on utility whilst the latter on an activity which is done for its own sake of enjoyment. According to the author, phenomenologists focus on play as “it involves a sense of external display” (140), comprising of the experiences of the other as witnesses and interested participants. In this sense, we are invited to witness each other as beholders of the wonder of being human and, in turn, become moved to contemplate the truth of what we are. Engelland invokes another central notion which has been a popular subject for phenomenological inspection: boredom. This feeling is characterized by a superficial interest in things and is contrasted with a deeper interest which is imbued by a sense of wonder. The difference between the two has direct implications on being human: whilst the former evokes indifference, the latter actuates care. Our sense of lethargy and apathy result from running away from ourselves, resulting into an inability of finding any meaning as we fail to experience things deeply. As Engelland clearly points out, this is the epitome of the consumer self who chooses freely but remains unaffected by the content of things. As a result, experiences fail to transform us since we do not allow them to consume us instead: “if modern life bores, it is for no other reason than experience has become turned inside out” (143). This requires from us to relearn to see ourselves as pilgrims rather than tourists.
Engelland’s insisting rallying cry is a return to the familiarity and intimacy of experiences. The struggle becomes harder as we become more dependent on our technological world, which leaves us more disconnected, alienated, exhausted and bored. In the author’s own words, “it is a matter of becoming aware of the contours of experience and making a commitment to sharing the truth of the world through speech and flesh” (146). Phenomenology is here presented as a means to turn away from distraction and, instead, dwell deeper in the dimensions of human experiences. It is, in many ways, a means of discerning that which is really important and meaningful in our lives by salvaging us from getting lost in a world of idle talk and gossip, throwing us, instead, towards wonder and genuine admiration. As a renewal of philosophy, phenomenology invites us to step back to gain much-needed perspective. This opening up of distance, paradoxically, brings us closer to the things in question, which, as Engelland notes, is a renewal of the Socratic method by connecting it to experience. In Engelland’s words, “phenomenology, then, is nothing other than the advent of a new wonder, the wonder before the truth of experience” (156).
Intriguingly, the author concludes his chapter on ‘wonder’ by briefly providing the initiating stages of someone beginning to delve deep into phenomenology: 1) Marvelling Stage – which reveals the tension between what one has always been told and what one had construed to be true, resulting in a hunch that phenomenology might lead to some truth and, thus, one ends up reading more about the topic even though a state of bafflement still resides; 2) Speaking Stage – where one becomes an enthusiastic student of phenomenology and, even though still an amateur in the language-game, one starts becoming familiar with the novel vocabulary used and accustomed to the phenomenological way of speaking; 3) Thinking Stage – where one becomes an expert, rigorous speaker of this new language game and can write about the different topics with clarity and coherence; 4) Truthing Stage – which goes beyond mere fluency in speaking and thinking, in turn accessing a whole class of truths. In this final stage, Engelland explains that one becomes transformed from within as the language of phenomenology becomes just like one’s mother tongue, as the need insistently arises to phenomenologize. “Phenomenology is something we learn by doing; it is something that is first experienced and then afterward understood” (161).
In his last two chapters, which are followed by a concise glossary of key terms used in phenomenology, Engelland discusses the method and movement of phenomenology. The choice of placing these chapters at the end – and not at the beginning, as many books introducing phenomenology normally do – seems to show us that the author wants the reader to first fall in love with the new paths opened by phenomenology within one’s lived experience before concerning oneself with the historical development and its methodology. In his chapter titled ‘The Method’, Engelland explains the main difference between doing science and doing phenomenology. In the former one observes, hypothesizes and experiments, whilst in the latter one indicates, returns and explicates; whereby indicate directs us “beyond observation to a more original layer of experience” (165), through return we go directly, “close and personal, with the fundamental layer of experience, a layer presupposed by science” (166) and in explicate we articulate the exhibited phenomena, since “phenomenology recognizes an inner kinship between experience and language” (167).
In his final chapter, titled ‘The Movement’, Engelland aims at highlighting how phenomenology has originated in Husserl’s works and developed by other key philosophers from the dawn of the 20th century all the way through our contemporary times. He explicitly states that “at its heart phenomenology remains a collaborative venture of researchers renewing the very movement of experience” (183). Engelland maps the origins of this movement and how it sought to bring back experience at the centre of philosophy. As his concluding chapter, the author highlights that phenomenology is a discipline which has a history with its own modifications which, nevertheless, resists becoming an ideology, or system, with a final say. Rather, as he presents it, phenomenology remains an on-going, unfinished project which “invites us to awaken to the joy dulled down by habit, to recover and renew the riches of experience, which does not close us in on ourselves, but throws open a world of dazzling things” (212).
Chad Engelland. 2020. Phenomenology. MIT Press: Cambridge.
Dietrich von Hildebrand. 2007. The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity. St. Augustine’s Press.