A physicist might explain the theory of general relativity in terms of one or more observers. “Let us imagine a spacious chest resembling a room with an observer inside,” Einstein writes. For a phenomenologist, however, this term “observer” is much too restrictive. Human ways of revealing and comporting to things extend far beyond mere observation. The term becomes especially problematical phenomenologically because it presupposes that we are already taking a quasi-theoretical distance, thus a determinate stance (one of objective observation), toward the world, while ignoring other ways of relating, ways that are much more crucial to our being able to gain an understanding of human comportment generally.
What’s more, we have to untangle an ambiguity in this term “subject,” particularly in how it’s used by scientists on the one hand and philosophers on the other. In a clinical setting, the “subject” is a kind of object, viz., an objectified other being observed for some scientific purpose. If we refer to “the subject” during an experiment, we are likely referring to a human guinea pig. In contrast, our philosophical use of the word never refers to an objectified other but to the first person as an irreducible occurrence: e.g., to the viewpoint of the scientist who is doing the observing.
The important point is that phenomenology takes all modes of the subject’s comportment into consideration, including all theoretic-scientific modes. Hence the thematic object of phenomenology (the phenomenon) is subjectively polyvalent. Because the phenomenon always corresponds to our ways of relating to it, the scientifically studied object is taken as scientifically studied, the clinically observed as clinically observed, the desired as desired, the holy as holy, the revered as revered, the feared as feared, the reviled as reviled, the touched as touched, the heard as heard, the remembered as remembered, the imagined as imagined, the ugly as ugly, the joyful as joyful, the timed as timed, the weighed as weighed, the politically expedient as politically expedient, etc. One and the same thing can be taken practically, ethically, aesthetically, mathematically, politically. These ways of taking them often overlap, but the point is that even objective ways of considering the world remain subjective in this fundamental sense. Since only some of those ways are theoretic-scientific, the phenomenon is more, not less, than the thing considered objectively. At the same time, there is always a sense in which the thing exceeds our finite ability to grasp it, even when we attempt to do so clinically.
Thus the objection that phenomenology only considers reality subjectively, and that it therefore doesn’t get at reality at all, is quite misguided. A perfectly scientific or mathematical consideration of reality is itself one of the ways the subject reveals, assesses, relates to, and otherwise makes sense of its world. While we can always ask about matter as something that subsists independently of human existence, as cut off from the manifold ways of relating to, interacting with, disclosing, and understanding the world, the question remains hypothetical since no such “independent” object is ever given to anyone, even to a scientist. Once something is revealed, it is immediately brought into the sense-making context of human relevance, a context on which science is quietly parasitic. In short, phenomenology always sees the investigator as part of the system being investigated while seeing investigation itself as only one of the ways we have of making sense of the world, ways that make the world appear (that is, reveal it) differently depending on each mode of access.