The Basics

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Dan Zahavi
The Basics
  • New York, NY: 
    , October
     158 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For the one seeking a way into phenomenological thinking today, or a way to help others find one, it has not been obvious, in the English context, what resource should serve as the best point of entry. For whatever reason, many find the founding texts of the field to be vast and difficult, the debates remote, the language vexing, and the relevance unapparent (surprisingly enough). These are not obstacles for scholars willing to grapple with them, but for teachers working within the limits of an academic semester, they can be difficult to overcome completely in time for it to matter. Those approaching phenomenology from outside philosophy departments face challenges, too. In addition to acquiring the basic tools of the trade, they must also navigate the points of contact with their own field, where they exist, or forge them, where they do not—all  the while working to persuade their readers of the relevance of such an approach. When the runners expend half their strength getting to the starting line, the race is liable to become uninteresting.

The first great merit of Dan Zahavi’s book, Phenomenology: The Basics, is to change this calculus for good. Offering English readers an entry point into phenomenology that is accessible, lucid, and engaging, presents key concepts and insights faithfully (but not ploddingly), along with their pertinence in multiple fields of contemporary research, and doing this without obvious error or negligence, is no small achievement. It is a publishing event, as its lucky (and shrewd) publisher will soon discover. Zahavi presents the field of phenomenology, its basic motivating analyses, its depth, and its extension into other disciplines today, more effectively than other introductions to phenomenology that are available in English. Other introductions to the field (in particular, those of Dermot Moran, Shaun Gallagher, and Robert Sokolowski) do what they do well, but are presented at a slightly more advanced level. Zahavi’s book compliments but does not replace them. In my estimation, it is likely to become the standard short introduction in the field.

Why does any of this matter? The conclusion gives an answer: “If we want to understand the world we are living in, we need to factor in the role played by embodied, perceiving, thinking, and feeling agents, and here phenomenology has something important to offer” (142). That is a mild understatement. Zahavi has shown, in fact, that for the one who desires to understand, phenomenology is highly important, because it shows how the world is not simply a random set of “things” we experience or live. It is not composed of so many mind-independent realities that are what they are with no involvement from us. It is “constituted,” and has the meaning it has for us, thanks to conscious acts of presentation, perception, judgment, and valuation that constantly we perform, often will little awareness. If we remain ignorant of these acts, we remain ignorant of what the mind is and does, and the world’s meaning—perhaps even life’s meaning—for us, becomes as difficult to understand as a foreign language.

Readers may notice that “religion” receives almost no direct attention in the book. Theological questions make no appearance either, nor do any of the figures who raise them (except Emmanuel Levinas and Michel Henry). The specific value of the book for scholars of religion is hardly diminished, since phenomenology is useful only to the extent that it is understood. Zahavi lays out the contours of it so well, and presents its insights and questions so reliably, that we would do well to start here. Sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and cognitive scientists will also benefit from Zahavi’s direct exposition of phenomenological applications in those fields.

Zahavi wisely reminds us that, whatever their differences may be, transcendental phenomenology shares basic commitments with those who insist upon its finite bounds. But questions can arise, of course. Neither Martin Heidegger, nor Jean-Paul Sartre, nor Maurice Merleau-Ponty would object to Zahavi’s claim that, for phenomenology, “the subject has no priority over the world, and truth is not to be found in the interiority of man” (66). Must we reconcile such a claim with Edmund Husserl’s apparently-opposite pronouncement at the end of Cartesian Meditations—not only the famous citation of Augustine, but also the claim that “positive science is a science lost in the world” (Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, Kluwer, 1999, 157)?

However one wishes to answer that question, it is difficult to avoid the impression, while reading Zahavi’s remarkable book, that phenomenology is entering a new phase, marked by a deeper reception across the disciplines and a wider recognition of the significance it carries. Holding “first-person experience” together with the insights of the positive sciences, Zahavi makes a convincing case that such an engagement is mutually productive. Phenomenological insights can bear on the empirical sciences—not only on their ideal aims, theoretically understood, but also on their concrete results. As the positive sciences absorb more insights from phenomenology, empirical results are liable to change, and that is one reason such an exchange is important. But things are not one-sided. “Empirical science can present phenomenology with concrete findings that it cannot simply ignore,” Zahavi insists, “but must be able to accommodate” (131). Much comes down, of course, to what “accommodate” means.

Zahavi allows us to wonder how far such a rapprochement can lead, and he presents with expert precision the points of debate on both sides. He is undoubtedly correct that it is the subject-world relation in its entirety that phenomenology places in question, but how that question is posed can vary significantly. Among other questions his approach prompts, we can ask: What idea drives the current engagement of phenomenology with the positive sciences? To pose the question too simplistically, does a naturalized phenomenology realize Husserl’s greatest hopes, or his greatest fears? Husserl thought that only phenomenology could assign to the sciences their ultimate meaning. If Zahavi shows their relationship to be more reciprocal than that, it remains to be seen whether, as its ultimate outcome, Husserl will be proven right.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Karl Hefty is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dan Zahavi is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and the University of Oxford and Director of the Center for Subjectivity Research in Copenhagen. He is the author of Self-Awareness and Alterity (1999), Husserl’s Phenomenology (2003), Subjectivity and Selfhood (2005), Self and Other (2014), and Husserl’s Legacy (2017). He co-authored The Phenomenological Mind (2012) with Shaun Gallagher, and has recently edited The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology (2012) and The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phenomenology (2018).


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