2001 Ballard Prize Winner
Dermot Moran, Introduction to Phenomenology. London: Routledge, 2000.
The title of this work is deceptively simple—what could be more familiar than an “introduction” to phenomenology? After all, Husserl himself wrote several, and there have been a number of other fine “introductory” works available to us in phenomenology’s first century. What makes this one different might be summarized in the author’s remark in the Preface that “phenomenology cannot be understood simply as a method, a project, a set of tasks; in its historical form it is primarily a set of people . . . “ (p. xiv). Thus the work introduces thinkers to us rather than only their thoughts, inviting us vicariously to enter their times and to think along with them, understanding the problems that most urgently moved them.
In this way the work functions rather like one of those figures in Renaissance art, when painters were first mastering the mystery of perspective and viewers were learning new ways of seeing through the two-dimensional canvas into the three-dimensional world it portrays: often a figure stands just at the border of that purported invisible wall between the painting’s world and ours, half turned toward us as though inviting us to enter this represented space and to participate in the drama that is unfolding there, even if we can’t occupy this space in any real physical way.
And so it is with Dermot Moran’s book. Even though a great many of the persons, encounters, lectures, publications, and controversies covered in the work occurred “in the past”—a domain that we ourselves, here and now, cannot enter in any literal way—they are introduced to us as vital moments in a still living tradition to which we do indeed have access, and which we can indeed be caught up in. Thus although the biographical and situational details are never allowed to overwhelm the discussions of the evolving philosophical contributions of the figures concerned, their “philosophies” are not presented in an abstract manner, but as rooted in a context. This in turn helps us to see the phenomenological tradition as a whole in a double light, i.e., as itself emerging within a historical context, on the one hand, and on the other hand, as itself serving—qua “tradition”—as the historical context embracing such diverse figures as Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Arendt, Levinas, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Derrida.
I should close by emphasizing that the work is by no means a mere recital of historical “facts” and philosophical “positions”; the author takes a critical stance on many points and issues, and the book is clearly written from a point of view (without, however, a parade of polemics). It is faithful and balanced; it moves within sensible limits and well accomplishes the tasks that lie within its compass; and it provides a keenly articulated introduction to a tradition that many see as thorny and impenetrable. It thereby serves, qua “introduction,” a function half hinted and half hidden by its modest title: it moves the phenomenological tradition along by opening it up to others. And since works such as these are as indispensable to the ongoing life of a tradition as other types of works are (be they seminal texts, critical editions, commentaries, bibliographies, and so on), I am pleased to call it to your attention as a candidate for the Ballard Prize.