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Though philosophers have often argued the point, phenomenology and existentialism are practically inseparable in modern philosophy. Existentialism is basically the study of human existence as it applies to the individual. This branch of philosophy looks at how each person imbues his or her own life with meaning, despite the many obstacles naturally placed in the way by the world as it is. Phenomenology is the study of human consciousness, or how each person experiences the world around him or her. Many philosophers today agree that phenomenology and existentialism overlap in many areas because both are concerned with the human experience and perceptions of the world.
Most of the time, existentialism focuses on the existence of human beings, not their essences. This philosophy does not focus on the soul or on intangible factors, like God and spiritual life. These factors are sometimes taken into account, but only as part of a person’s personal philosophy, not as a generally accepted truth. In existentialism, nothing is objective; all experiences are subjective, with each person assigning a different meaning to his or her life. Existentialism states that people need to assign meaning to their lives to help them rise above the unfavorable characteristics of the world at large.
The study of phenomenology also looks at existence, but focuses more on how different experiences shape one’s opinion of the world at large. Philosophers ascribing to this school of thought usually look at phenomena, or things as they appear in each individual human experience. In other words, something that seems like a phenomenon, or a strange happening, to one person may be perfectly normal to another. For instance, a shadow in a photograph may be experienced as a ghost or supernatural figure by one person, while another person experiences this same phenomenon as a case of overexposed film.
Where phenomenology and existentialism overlap is through experience. Humans use the phenomena they experience to imbue their lives with meaning, which drives them to keep functioning and pushing forward. Each person experiences phenomena differently, which means each case of human existence is different. This provides the world with many different kinds of people. This diversity is necessary to keep both phenomenology and existentialism alive. If people all experienced and perceived things in the same ways, neither of these philosophies would exist.
The driving force behind both phenomenology and existentialism is fulfillment. Human beings experience things as they do because they need to feel a sense of purpose. These two philosophies collide because that fulfillment hinges on assigning meaning to one’s life and then experiencing that meaning.