Edmund Husserl (d. 1938) was the founder of phenomenology, a philosophical approach that came to influence many philosophical thinkers and historical theorists in the academic study of religion.
Husserl’s phenomenology attempted to adopt a scientific attitude to investigating human experience. It requires one to put aside all assumptions (which Husserl referred to as the “bracketing out” of assumptions) such as the strongly held conviction in the existence of an external world beyond one’s mind or consciousness. By doing this, one can engage in philosophy free from assumptions and therefore from a clean slate.
Phenomenology is, on Husserl’s terms, the philosophical study of the phenomenon of experience. By “phenomena”, Husserl meant the world of apparent, visible, and perceptible things, or “the things themselves”. The things themselves are not merely illusions but of very real and primary importance. They are phenomena most immediate to human experience and that exist in the “life word.” Husserl moves away from abstract (the noumenal world of things in and of themselves) to the world of primary experience (phenomena; the world as it appears to us).
Studying the experience of the things themselves would, Husserl believed, assist in securing foundations to knowledge. It was also a part of Husserl’s goal to seek after certainty in various disciplines, including mathematics, politics, ethics, and physics, that he wished to place on secure, indubitable foundations. The influence of Rene Descartes’ methodological doubt that he used to reduce knowledge to first principles becomes apparent in Husserl’s pursuit for certain, indubitable knowledge. Husserl believed that given enough investigation of and attention to the phenomenon of experience, one would be able to construct a secure foundation of knowledge that would itself assist philosophers to grapple with some of the most important philosophical questions that have been the substance of thought since time immemorial.
As noted, Husserl’s phenomenology had a huge impact on the scientific study of religion, or religious studies. Technically speaking, most scholars of religion today are phenomenologists because they apply Husserl’s advice to bracket out one’s assumptions and values when studying the experiences of religious individuals and/or communities. Phenomenology of religion thus seeks to be impartial and neutral when investigating religious phenomena. Husserl’s phenomenology was also appropriated by other scholars of religion. William Brede Kristensen (d. 1953) claimed that one ought to always privilege the perspective of the religious person/community being studied lest the researcher “negate the religious reality.” In his study of religious experience, the German theologian Rudolf Otto (d. 1937) sought an essence to religion that he located in the numinous, or the tremendum mysterium. Otto’s was a theory of religion’s essence based first and foremost on the experience of religious persons. Numerous other historical phenomenologists are worth mentioning, such as Cornelis Petrus Tiele (d. 1902), Pierre Daniel Chantepie de la Saussaye (d. 1920), Mircea Eliade (d. 1986), and others. Theorists like these produced an “insider knows best” approach to phenomenology in the study of religion that continues to be used by scholars today.
Capps, Walter, 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 110-112
Buckingham, Will., Burnham, Douglas., Hill, Clive., King, Peter., Marenbon, John., and Weeks, Marcus. 2018. The Little Book of Philosophy. Penguin Random House. p. 144-145.