Phenomenology: A philosophical school of thought and method of analysis founded by late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German philosopher Edmund Husserl whose proponents postulate that objects attain meaning only as they are perceived in someone’s consciousness. Husserl argued that human consciousness is intentional (directed toward an object) as well as unitary (in a reciprocal relationship with the object). As Husserl noted, phenomenology emphasizes the psychical realm of awareness; the phenomenologist analyzes the object as it is perceived, suspending judgments or presuppositions that are not part of the analyst’s own consciousness. Husserl used the term epochē to refer to this suspended, or “bracketed,” moment.
Phenomenologists acknowledge that objects exist in the space-time continuum, but they believe that active awareness on the part of some subject is required for an object to be intelligible. Phenomenologists thus reject any preconceived notions about epistemology or ontology (the studies of knowledge and being, respectively), since they argue that an object carries the meaning that any given subject perceives in (or for) it, rather than an inherent meaning.
Phenomenology provides the basis for phenomenological criticism, a form of literary criticism usually associated with the Geneva School. Geneva critics try to analyze a literary work without any external references, approaching the text passively, sympathetically, and meditatively to experience the unique consciousness of its author. Phenomenology also influenced the development of existentialism, particularly as expressed by German philosopher Martin Heidegger and French philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre.