... as opposed to "phenomenology."

I suspect transcendental phenomenology refers specifically to some of Edmund Husserl's studies. But I would like to understand what was meant by them. I am finding the Wikipedia and Phenomenology Online definitions to be too oblique.

3 Answers 3


[Sorry this is wall of text-y but the question is really hard and outside my area]

One of the most pressing philosophical problems at the end of the 19th century was to explain how to reconcile the passivity of the senses with the activity of the mind. If our knowledge is going to be about the world, then somehow the world is going to have to ``push back'' and we are going to have to receive information from it. However, at the same time our minds clearly organize and shape that experience in terms of concepts to make it meaningful.

Here's an analogy to help explain the problem. Suppose you are wearing red glasses, so everything looks red to you. You are having a certain set of sensory experiences, but those experiences are being conditioned by the colored glass. The concepts that our minds actively create are like these colored lenses. We have concepts in our minds like time, identity, change, object, etc. That condition all our experiences. Think about what you really experience. You don't see meaningless fields of color, you see the book on the shelf. You don't hear pure frequencies, you hear the car going by in the street. That is to say that everything you experience is interpreted, and the concepts your mind creates are part of that interpretation.

Now here's the problem: If you want to ask whether everything is really red or not, all you have to do take the glasses off and look. However you can't "take off" your conceptual lenses to see if the set of concepts you are using accurately organize the sensory information you have received or not. Ask yourself: Does time really exist? You could say, well, look, I see things changing around me all the time. Of course you do, your mind is using the "time" concept and applying it to sensation--the question is whether your mind is doing it right or not? Is there something objective in reality itself that your concept of time corresponds to? That question looks really deep and hard.

At the very beginning of the 19th century, Kant tried to answer questions like these with the transcendental turn. Kant's idea was that his predecessors had been thinking about this question in the wrong way. Kant argues that it is not possible for us to have experience at all without time: the mind's activity and the senses' passivity are simultaneous. Hence, just by describing how the concept of time in our minds work, we discover everything there is about the world that could ever be empirically discovered through the senses too! The objective validity of our concept of time, in other words, can be demonstrated by the fact that it would not be possible for us to have the kind of experience we do at all without time. Notice that it is very important for Kant's view that the concept of time is something universal, so every rational subject would have to have the exact same conception of time for his solution to work. Kant thought this kind of maneuver--investigating the conditions of the possibility of experience--would solve a whole range of problems like this about the nature of space, time, selfhood, and other stuff.

By the end of the 19th century, a number of huge problems had arisen. Here's a famous one from mathematics. Kant argues that our concept of space is euclidean--and that we know that this conception of space is objectively valid because there isn't any other way that it is possible to think of space that would allow us to have the kind of experiences we do. But Gauss and Riemann and host of others had shown that it was certainly conceptually possible to make non-euclidean geometries and by the time of Einstein, it appears that the geometry of actual space-time because an empirical rather than conceptual question. Further, there were a number of philosophers, most notably Hegel, who took issue with Kant's idea that every rational mind must have the exact same set of concepts. These philosophers pointed to the importance of history and culture--concepts seem to change over time and mutate in different ways in different cultures.

Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, is attempting to respond to issues like this. Like Kant, Husserl thinks we need a transcendental project--we must investigate what makes it possible for us to have the kind of experiences we do. However, Husserl thinks that one important kind of experience we have is when the things we think we know turn out to be different than we expected. We have the experience of being brought up short, having our expectations dashed, or fulfilled and so forth. What this shows us is that the world pushes back even harder than Kant thought. It isn't that our mind is "making up" features of reality that everything most conform to--rather it is that the objects in the world are themselves already have some kind of structure or unity or cohesion and these objective meaningful features of the things are disclosed to us in our experience by means of the interpretations we can give them. So, our minds are active--they create interpretations of our experience that construe such information in meaningful ways, but there is already something meaningful in the object itself which can provide confirmation or disconfirmation of that interpretation. Further, the process is dynamic: new aspects of familiar objects get disclosed to me through new experiences all the time. Investigating how these meaning-revealing experiences work is the project of transcendental phenomenology.

There are other kinds of phenomenology too. Some phenomenologists are interested in investigating things like how I get the sense I have of my body in space. In that sense, phenomenology is something more like a set of methods or research questions about how some particular kinds of experiences work. One could think those methods are valuable while thinking that Husserl's particular transcendental answer to the very deep philosophical problem I've outline above didn't work. Such a person would be a non-transcendental phenomenologist.

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    Sounds like Husserl's project is transcendental because it's dealing with the elevated plane of subjective perception; elevated because it is above mundane basic materiality. That is to say it is not transcendental because of what it does, but because of the plane it takes place in. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 14:24
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    "transcendental" in this context isn't opposed to "material" or because it has to do with a different plane of existence or something (which is the way it is used in the phrase "transcendent God" or "transcendental meditation"). Rather, Husserl's philosophy is "transcendental" in the sense that it's concerned with the conditions of possibility that make an experience possible. This is a technical philosophical term with a slightly different sense. Husserl's phenomenology isn't supposed to be esoteric or mystical in any sense. It's about the real, concrete world we experience.
    – user5172
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 14:45
  • @ shane - Neither do I mean 'transcendental' in the esoteric or mystical sense. I mean transcendental as in "immanent in human existence", as in my 2nd quote on this question, from Ilan Gur-Ze’ev. However, I do mean transcendental as in not amongst the being of things, because "The thing doesn't at all transcend ..." - (from my 1st quote). That is precisely what the transcendent transcends. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 15:21
  • @ChrisDegnen I'm not sure I follow. But this isn't my area.
    – user5172
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 16:19
  • @ shane - Basically, table, chairs, bodies and bones are material phenomena. Experience, memory, feeling and thought are from something that has transcended its materiality, and are transcendental phenomena. Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 16:26

I know that this question has since been answered, but I think that some parts of the terminology have not been addressed. Transcendental phenomenology is that which is possible as a consequence of transcendental phenomenological reduction. Now of course, the question changes to what is meant by this. Phenomenological, roughly speaking is a shifting of the world of experience into mere "phenomenon." This is achieved by first casting doubt upon pre-held fundamental beliefs (epoche). From here, one must "Reflect," (a term, that I myself am still fuzzy on).

From here: one has to ask the question of where the basis of knowledge comes from, and for Husserl this includes "being-in-the world" and so the validity of claims can only be determined by the subject who has a particular experience. Then whatever follows is self-determined leading to the discovery of the transcendental ego, which is exactly the realization of self that leads a so-called "intentional life," where consciousness is conscious-of-something.

But the "I" in this judgement, however, does not contain content to be understood/studied/explained and remains as a "pure ego."

Then to quote Richard Schmitt: "[it is] 'transcendental' because it uncovers the ego for which everything has meaning and existence.'Phenomenological' because it transforms the world into mere phenomenon. It is called 'reduction' because it leads us back to the source of the meaning and existence of the experienced world."-Husserl's Transcendental-Phenomenological Reduction.


As far as I know, phenomenology is concerned with existence and the existence of phenomena such as material. However, some 'material' has transcended its basic materiality and developed self-aware consciousness. These would be transcendent phenomema, and study of their phenomenology would be transcendental phenomenology.

Elaborative quotes, posted as per comment

"The thing doesn't at all transcend and is not at all the transcendent in the sense of that which has stepped beyond."

(Heidegger, Basic Problem of Phenomenology, page 229) Link

"Transcendence is the fundamental structure of the subjectivity of the subject. This is why in the traditional sense for Heidegger there is no transcendence: for him it is immanent in human existence."

(Ilan Gur-Ze’ev - http://www.beyng.com/ )

"We said that ontology is the science of being. But being is always the being of a being. Being is essentially different from a being, from beings. How is the distinction between being and beings to be grasped? How can its possibility be explained? If being is not itself a being, how then does it nevertheless belong to beings, since, after all, beings and only beings are? What does it mean to say that being belongs to beings? The correct answer to this question is the basic supposition needed to set about the problems of ontology regarded as the science of being.... It is a distinction which is first and foremost constitutive for ontology. We call it the ontological difference -- the differentiation between being and beings.

"... With this distinction between being and beings and the selection of being as theme we depart in principle from the domain of beings. We surmount it, transcend it. We can also call the science of being, as critical science, transcendental science. In doing so we are not simply taking over unaltered the concept of the transcendental in Kant, although we are indeed adopting its original sense and its true tendency, perhaps still concealed from Kant. We are surmounting beings in order to reach being. Once having made the ascent we shall not again descend to a being, which, say, might lie like another world behind the familiar beings. The transcendental science of being has nothing to do with popular metaphysics, which deals with some being behind the known beings."

(Heidegger, Basic Problem of Phenomenology, page 17) Link

In Summary

This elaborates on Heidegger's take on transcendence, which in some passage is described as the transcendence of matter. However, I don't feel this is necessarily definitive. For my own position I would accept another definition that made as much or more sense. Such a strategy of non-absolutism also seems the best, "as far as I know".

  • This is not enough to be really helpful. Especially if you're not sure ("afaik") you should give references or sources, so the asker knows where to look further. As it stands, I don't think your answer helped him more than the sources he already checked.
    – iphigenie
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 10:27
  • I read this definition of transcendence in Heidegger's Basic Problems of Phenomenology (1975). But I wouldn't be surprised if others defined it differently. Most people would commonly think it's something to do with astral planes probably. It's really pretty basic, down-to-earth, and easy to understand as far as I know. Heidegger dispatched it in a sentence. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 10:38
  • My saying "as far as I know" is my acknowledgement that concepts in philosophy are rarely definitive. However, I am comfortable with this easily-graspable definition of transcendence. I will be interested to see if other posts present something more compelling. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 13:32

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