Mar 03, 14
[Posted below is a response to the question above, asked by my brother-in-law. It's useful to think these things through once in a while. I should probably give the following a final polish so that I always have a good stock-reply on hand to this sort of question. Pending that, I'll post the unpolished version below.]
It's a common misunderstanding that phenomenology is somehow allergic to science. It's not the case at all. In fact, phenomenology grew out of questions that trained, career scientists developed regarding the methodology and validity of their own scientific investigations (All the early phenomenologists were nothing else except scientists or mathematicians). These questions were not "non-sciency", like scientists who turn to creationism, or something equally "non-sciency", to find "the meaning of life". Rather, the questions were initially motivated by the search for a MORE persuasive case for scientific results. Sometimes this is called the search for a *grounding* of scientific activity, where *grounding* is the super-justification that explains why scientific methodology is not just a bunch of made up bullshit.
What sorts of questions were asked? All sorts of questions. Such as,
-how do we ensure the intersubjective validity of scientific research that is conducted by subjects? (or, if I research something, and reach suitably rigorous results, what makes it true for everyone thereafter?)
-how are universally valid results possible for a historically situated science? (or, since science is not a static enterprise, rather it keeps growing, expanding, refining its understanding of itself, how do we know which results arrived at now, or in the past, will still be valid in the future?)
-what is the status of 'laws of nature' as opposed to the empirical phenomena that supposedly expresses these laws? (or, are 'laws of nature' real, or just placeholder concepts for relations of dependency that can never be witnessed in themselves?)
-and more, more, more....
Phenomenology makes the effort to answer some of these questions by providing an account of the invariant structures of experience which stand as the condition of possibility for the manifestation of all different manners of objects of experience. That's a mouthful, it takes a while to understand what it means, and, unfortunately, it can't be boiled to anything easier (although there are better and worse descriptions of phenomenology).
OK. So if phenomenology has so much to do with science, then why is it a general misconception that phenomenology is allergic to science?
Well, first of all, it's not a general misconception that phenomenology is allergic to science in Europe. That misconception is more of a thing in the English-speaking world. Why so? Because phenomenology was more or less unheard of in the English speaking world until Heidegger, Husserl's pupil, became an internationally known literary figure. In many ways Heidegger was the better Johnny Appleseed for phenomenology -- and he was certainly a more interesting and provocative writer (as opposed to Husserl, and other early phenomenologists, who tended to write a dry German academic prose flush with math/science terminology). Heidegger came from a Classics background -- a lecturer on Aristotle -- and with him phenomenology took a more literary, historical turn.
This turn, and the anti-science misconception it proliferated, was intensified by a generation of mid 20th century American academics who played up the groovier "be here, now" aspects of phenomenology at the expense of the exact science angle. Lots of reasons for this, but basically, it's hard to read German, and not that popular to do so, especially after two World Wars where the Krauts were the bad guys, so the only people who bothered to take up phenomenology were weirdo, polylingual literary types with no background in the sciences.
After many years of patient scholarship, the anti-science misconception is gradually being overturned. So are the exact sciences super-pumped to find out that phenomenology likes them after all? Not really; but the reason, as I understand it, is that in this excessively professionalized research environment, there's no real payoff for asking the hard philosophical questions about the validity of your methods. We're more pragmatic in America -- either you get that research grant, or you don't. No reason to wax philosophical about your methods.
Another reason phenomenology still stands at a distance, real or perceived, from the sciences is that the general push of post-modernity made a lot of people suspicious about the project of *grounding* in general. Is it even possible to find this 'absolute' standpoint from which to appraise the validity, or lack thereof, of scientific results? Is the Archimedean point a mere fiction? That sort of misunderstands what my man Husserl is all about, but it's a debate that's out there.
So to draw to a close. Phenomenology can and does live in harmony with science. When people walk away from phenomenology with the impression that it's anti-science, it can usually be attributed to lazy and uninformed presentation on the part of the teacher, or to a too-brief flirtation with the field on the part of the student.