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Reviewed by:
  • Phenomenology by Chad Engelland
  • Kenneth Knies
ENGELLAND, CHAD. Phenomenology. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2020. 264 pp. Paper, $15.95

The series to which Engelland’s book is a contribution aims to offer nonspecialists points of access to essential knowledge. Phenomenology is philosophically interesting because Engelland takes this pedagogical task seriously. The inaugural systematic works of phenomenology are preoccupied with how to become a genuine beginner in philosophy. But the radicalness of the beginning they seek, and their reflexive concern to show that they begin at the beginning, makes them anything but accessible in the ordinary sense. There is also a sizable academic literature that “introduces” phenomenology as a viable or preferable approach to established problems. These works speak the lingua franca of philosophical scholarship but are not primarily interested in making the phenomenal field visible to someone who has never looked for it. Engelland tries to foster this discovery, presenting the investigation of experience in familiar terms while protecting its transcendental character from empiricist misinterpretation. His strategy is to define and practice phenomenology as the explication of how experience is open to truth in the first place. The book is a teaching tool designed to show the reader that she is already involved in the fundamental dimension from which the great phenomenological thinkers have drawn their topics.

The central chapters explore various features of experience in its directedness toward true appearances. There is an understated logic and comprehensiveness to Engelland’s ordering of the material. He follows accounts of world, lived-body, and speech with a discussion of the interests, moods, and evaluative attitudes that motivate philosophical [End Page 406] questioning itself. With the circle closed, phenomenology appears less as a school of thought than a sublime expression of the very life that it understands. Throughout, the focus is on providing the beginner with a cohesive subject matter that integrates the perspectives of diverse canonical thinkers. Engelland paints in broad but carefully placed strokes, relying upon a few smartly defined, technical concepts (such as “constitution” and “intentionality”) to anchor descriptions that proceed from scenes of everyday life. One cannot overstate the easiness of the tone with which this book addresses its reader. Here are the openings of a few sections: “When I was sixteen I got glasses for the first time”; “What is it about the beach that draws us so powerfully?”; “To taste a slice of freshly baked bread”; “What do we do when we can do whatever we want to do?”

Most chapters successfully proceed from such starting points to important and difficult phenomenological discoveries. For instance, in the space of fifteen pages, the chapter on speech introduces categorial intuition, depictive image-consciousness, the ideality of words, the expressive power of poetry, and the relation between predication and prepredicative understanding. These wide-ranging, fast-paced discussions remain thought-provoking because they are oriented by memorable examples and formulations that are simultaneously clarifying and suggestive. To illustrate the interplay of presence and absence in a unitary thing of perception, Engelland considers how Cézanne’s use of heavy outline conveys substantiality. He calls upon Magritte’s famously self-effacing pipe to aid reflections on the differing powers of image and word. He highlights the concreteness of cultural objects through a description of a table’s properties in terms of human existence. It concludes in this apt distillation: “The table—a standing flat surface for keeping things at a handy distance—is what it is in light of what we are.”

Engelland’s vision of phenomenology is capacious and irenic. His closing chapter on the phenomenological movement claims that the conflicts between schools and figures have all been overblown. True or not, this view certainly befits a general introduction and allows Engelland to weave together insights, not only from Husserl and Heidegger, but also, for instance, from Scheler and Levinas. Nonetheless, a book of this nature inevitably proceeds on the basis of decisions for which it provides no argument. There are two decisions of some consequence for the overall tenor of his presentation. First, Engelland’s treatment of the book’s central topics employs a Heideggerian understanding of constitution as a human possibility (as opposed to a...