Jeffrey McCurry - The Therapy of Putting Essences Back Into Existence: Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, and Phenomenology as a Way of Life

This is one of the papers from our 2017 Annual Conference, the Future of Phenomenology. Information and the full conference booklet can be found at

Phenomenology is often taken as a philosophy involving knowledge or representation of experience: a reflective, descriptive, scientific logos about structures of phenomena. But what if phenomenological discourse, just as such, could also be applied to life as a kind of ethics? What if phenomenology can be a hortatory discourse inviting us into a certain way of life?

For the reflective meaning of phenomenology presupposes a more concrete meaning signifying a form of lived experience itself: a phenomenon with a certain logos or form to it, within it, and as it, which can go on to be represented as knowledge. Here phenomenology is fundamentally and firstly a way of life: life is phenomenological when it goes in a certain way that flows from, stays with, and lives into the natural grain of spontaneous, immediate, embodied experience.

If life can be phenomenological, however, life can also not be. Life with the grain of experience can be dangerous and difficult, so human life rebels against it with a gamut of theoretical and practical fantasies that are all versions of “metaphysics.” Life with metaphysics is self-contradictory, is inauthentic, and vitiates experience, but it promises us simulacra of safety in purporting to distance us from the threats and challenges we fear in the plane of experience.

Hence phenomenology needs to be seen not only as descriptive but also as evocative of a way of being human. Through meditating on Wittgenstein’s notion of philosophy as “therapy” and Merleau-Ponty’s idea that phenomenology means “putting essences back into existence,” I hope to show how phenomenology can be much more than knowledge. Engaging Wittgentsein and Merleau-Ponty helps us see phenomenology as a therapeutic, evocative discourse, an art of living, an ethics, meant to reconnect us with phenomenological life—meant to invite us into phenomenology as a way of life.

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