A few words on the phenomenological methodology I use in my dissertation

In order to better understand the topic of my dissertation and the problem it aims to solve, first and foremost, I would like to get my reader acquainted with the world of Phenomenology of Religion. As Christopher Hugh Partridge rightfully stated, phenomenological approach is “arguably the most influential approach to the study of religion in the twentieth century”.

Although, of course, phenomenology is more commonly associated with the name of Edmund Husserl, who developed his own distinct methodology in philosophy, and, prior to him – with the works of Georg Hegel and his “Phenomenology of Spirit”, in Religious Studies, this term was introduced in the works of Pierre Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye – one of the greatest scholars of his time. In his magnum opus – “Textbook of the History of Religion, he developed a phenomenological methodology, based on the meticulous cataloguing of observable characteristics to study religious systems.

While the works of Chantepie de la Saussaye contributed greatly to the development of Religious Studies, the Husserlian definition of the phenomenological method goes far beyond the simple systematizing of gathered information. For Husserl, the basis of knowledge is consciousness. In his wisdom, he was able to see the intrinsic connection between our cognitive processes and our own beliefs, prior interpretations, biases, and how much of an impact it might have on our judgment. To counter this problem, Husserl devised the special term – “eidetic vision” – the special ability and way of contemplating phenomena, while being delivered (at least up to the some extent, for it is questionable that they can be eliminated completely) from preceding beliefs and pre-conceptions, that blur our perception. Another key concept is the idea of the epoche – deliberate suspension of all metaphysical reflections accumulated by the history of scientific and non-scientific thinking – opinions, judgments, evaluations of the subject and seeks from the position of a “pure observer” to breach to the very essence of the examined subject as it is. In Religious Studies, the importance of this method lies in the fact that that epoche can be used as valuable tool in cross-cultural studies, which is always the case for Ancient Egypt, it goes without saying that all the scholars, who currently study Ancient Egypt, are by default not Ancient Egyptians, therefore, susceptible to bear the weight of multilayered biases and preconceptions. My dear reader, allow me to illustrate this problem with a short example.

Let’s imagine a hypothetical researcher, studying a particular extract from an ancient Egyptian text, written on the interior surface of the sarcophagus. Then, let’s assume that he is Christian, that he is familiar with, and agrees with the ideas of Charles Darwin on the origin of species, he has heard of Karl Marx and his vision of socio-economic formations, which replace each other depending on the evolution of industrial relations and forms of ownership. And yes, he lives in the last decades of the XIX century – the radiant crescendo of the Belle Époque – the time of naïve optimism and optimistic naivety, when the belief in forthcoming progress and the inevitable coming of the Age of Reason seemed assured. Wouldn’t it be plausible to assume, that our inquisitive researcher could have been influenced by his religion (Christianity), the spirit of the society in which he lived (the general optimism and the staunch belief in societal and scientific progress), by popular theories, circulating in scientific circles at his time? Isn’t it quite likely, that if the religious authorities of his time clearly refer to Moses as to the “first monotheist”, multiplied by the omnipresent evolution-centered spirit in academia (which clearly promulgates the idea of continuous and gradual development of everything, starting with biological species and socio-economic formations, and up to the gradual actualization of the Hegelian Weltgeist in the materium and Spencerian sociology), then he could naturally presuppose the progressist outlook of ancient religious systems, thus pre-conceive the notion, that the religious system of the Ancient Egypt must be polytheistic in its nature.

Indeed, if the emergence of the Abrahamic religions and the transition to Christianity in the Roman Empire were progressive, and if, following the same logic, the transition from the religious cultures that preceded the rise of the Old Kingdom to organised forms of institutional religion was also progressive, then we have no choice but to assign the status of “missing link” to the religion of ancient Egypt, thus reducing this very complex and unique phenomenon to a representation of the category of polytheism that exists in the mind of our researcher.

The phenomenological approach, on the other hand, aims at taking the beliefs, symbols, rituals etc. of the other culture from within their own perspective, rather than imposing our own . One of the most ardent proponents of the phenomenological approach – Gerardus van der Leeuw, who tried to incorporate phenomenological apparatus into Religious Studies, presented a list of guidelines in his work “Religion in Essence and Manifestation” According to van der Leeuw and his method of systematic introspection – “the interpolation of the phenomenon into our own lives. In order to properly approach the scrutinized phenomenon, he proposes to follow several principles.

First, the scholar must classify the religious phenomena in a particular tradition into categorical groups (what is sacred, what is profane, what is sacrifice, what is ritual). Then, the phenomena must be interpolated into his own life and empathetically examined from within, out of scholar’s “inner self”. Then van der Leeuw, following Husserlian principles, emphasizes the importance of the epoche and suspension of all pre-conceived judgements (including the value-based ones) and the principle of neutrality. In addition to this, all the perceived information about the structural relationships within phenomena should be clarified and understood holistically, without any reduction to functionalism. As van der Leeuw describes further, “… all these activities, undertaken together and simultaneously, constitute genuine understanding (Verstehen): the chaotic and obstinate ‘reality’ thus becomes a manifestation, a revelation”. For him, and for many other phenomenologists, the task of a scholar is the search for “the meaning” of the phenomenon, while maintaining objectivity and strict scientific methodology, thus avoiding sliding into phantasy-fuelled speculations.

According to CARP (Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology), there are seven features that can distinguish research projects, conducted in phenomenology, or influenced by phenomenological methodology. Among them are:

  1. Phenomenologists tend to oppose the acceptance of unobservable matters and grand systems erected in speculative thinking (no hard feelings. herr Hegel, zu den Sachen selbst).
  2. Phenomenologists tend to oppose naturalism (also called objectivism and positivism), which is the worldview growing from modern natural science and technology that has been spreading from Northern Europe since the Renaissance.
  3. Phenomenologists tend to justify cognition (and some also evaluation and action) with reference to what Edmund Husserl called Evidenz, which is awareness of a matter itself as disclosed in the most clear, distinct, and adequate way for something of its kind.
  4. Phenomenologists tend to believe that not only objects in the natural and cultural worlds, but also ideal objects, such as numbers, and even conscious life itself can be made evident and thus known.
  5. Phenomenologists tend to hold that inquiry ought to focus upon what might be called “encountering” as it is directed at objects and, correlatively, upon “objects as they are encountered” (this terminology is not widely shared, but the emphasis on a dual problematics and the reflective approach it requires is).
  6. Phenomenologists tend to recognize the role of description in universal, a priori, or “eidetic” terms as prior to explanation by means of causes, purposes, or grounds.
  7. Ah, yes, the seventh one…well, in order to avoid the dubious fame of becoming one of hostis humani generis, I will not say a single word about the transcendental phenomenological epochê and the reality of this mysterious subject. But, my dear reader, I will gladly encourage your curiosity to learn more about this issue.

If you are interested in Phenomenology, I would recommend you to check this list of organizations, generously composed by the researchers from the Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology and contact the one you find most interesting.