Phenomenology is a philosophical approach to human nature--or to the impossibility of having a human nature--that started in Europe with Edmund Hussurl. Phenomenology emphasizes the subjective experience of the individual. It assumes that "existence precedes essence," where existence is subjective experience and essence is human nature. Phenomenology later became incorporated into the philosophical approach known as existentialism, influential throughout Europe from 1940-1960, which started with such earlier thinkers as Søren Kierkegaard and Fredrich Nietzsche, and later was advanced by Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. The existentialists focused on the subjective experience of the individual, especially feelings of dread and anxiety in the face of one's inherent aloneness and limitations--the ultimate limitation being death. Another focus was on the individual's personal freedom and responsibility to create meaning in life out of meaninglessness.

When existential philosophy arrived in North America, it took a more optimistic turn in the humanistic psychologies of people such as Carl Rogers. Rogers is often incorrectly labeled a phenomenologist because of his emphasis on subjective experience. However, the common principle upon which phenomenology is based is that existence precedes essence. Rogers, by contrast, believes that human beings have an inherent essence: the striving for self-actualization. It is therefore incorrect to label Rogers a phenomenologist.

Due to his intense concern with the individual, it also may be incorrect to label Rogers a humanist. Some would say that humanism emphasizes the importance of pro-social behavior, not actualization of oneself, and it is not clear that these two things are one and the same. For example, Rogers would probably label an Olympic swimmer, who constantly strove to shave a millisecond off her best time, as living up to her potential, and consequently as self-actualized. However, one might legitimately ask what is the point of such activity in the broader social framework in which we all live. Rogers would probably not distinguish this form of self-actualization from another form of self-actualization that made a difference in countless people's lives, such as that of Martin Luthur King, Jr. Still, theoretically and morally this seems a distinction worth making.

I would like for students who are taking my class to understand the following terms: phenomenology, existentialism, and humanism. I would also like for students to be able to identify philosophers and psychologists who are typically identified with these approaches.


Activity: What is distinctive about the phenomenological approach to personality? What are its philosophical origins? How does it differ from the trait approach? What criticisms could be leveled at the phenomenological approach?

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