Defining phenomenology

By Ian Rory Owen PhD

This entry defines some of the key aspects of the work of the post-Neo-Kantian philosopher Edmund Husserl, called phenomenology. It makes links to phenomenological influences in contemporary philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and the theory and practice of psychotherapy. As an introductory statement, phenomenology is theorising about how the mind works by attending to the lived experiences of oneself and others. It puts conscious lived personal and social experiences at the beginning of its work.

Unfortunately the view of Husserl that is accepted even among philosophers who should know better, is a false picture. The images generally accepted and promoted by Heidegger and Derrida are distorted. Heidegger in 1927 works and thereafter increased the focus on timeless ideals and painted him as Descartes in Being and Time, for instance. This was a distortion and took away the subtly and attention to detail that existed in the study of temporality which even around 1911 in Husserl, was aimed at capturing the difficulties of understanding the a priori of temporality. The picture promoted by Derrida of Husserl was similarly distorted when it was first published in 1968. That this view has any credibility with respect to the published works even in 1968, is testament to the failure to attend to the letter of Husserl's works.

The first thing to be noted is that there are two types of phenomenology not just one. Hussrl’s work came to maturity in 1927 in Formal and Transcendental Logic and the drafts that were written for a definitive entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The first introductory type of phenomenology is called “pure psychology”. It is a theoretical psychology preparatory for any applied psychology. It is social as well as individual. The stance that was being urged would now be called a biopsychosocial perspective.

The second type of phenomenology is called transcendental phenomenology. It studies how there is a world of meaning for more than one person. Transcendental phenomenology is an abstract study preparatory for philosophy and the applied sciences concerning how meaning exists for consciousness in its social and historical habitat. It is allegedly devoid of influences from specific worlds of meaning.

Pure psychology and transcendental phenomenology share a number of aspects of method and stance. Their focus is on meaning in the sense that intentionalities (mental processes) create specific lived conscious senses of an object of attention in some context. Intentionalities are mental processes and can be grouped into families of ways of being aware. For instance, some of these are perceiving (eg sight and hearing), conceptual (speech, writing, mathematics) and more complex types such as understanding the perspective and intentions of others (empathy or empathic presentiation) and visual art (depictive presentiation). Both types of phenomenology are preparatory to applications of thought in decision-making and the sciences in that they make theoretical conclusions from lived experience generally, about the general nature of consciousness understood socially. In this way, Husserl’s work is the development of Immanuel Kant. In Kantian terms, phenomenology is “a priori:” it is not empirical (yet employs qualitative methods). It is “transcendental” because it finds about the enabling conditions of possibility for meaning. The conclusions of phenomenology are like geometry in relation to the applications of geometry. Its conclusions are about the universal and constant structures of the mind. Both types of phenomenology are not only focused on the objects of attention but also interpret how the intentionalities work together. For instance, when any person remembers something. Remembering something is the re-playing of a prior perception that re-plays that past moment, superimposed on the current perceptions.

What follows below is a section that shows some details of Husserl’s mature phenomenology.

Details common to both types of phenomenology

Phenomenology comprises a number of methods of understanding experience that begin with reflection from an interpretative position concerning what appears and what must be occurring in one’s own or others’ lived experience. It finds invariant structures of experience. Its technical language refers to conscious similarities and differences in experience.

Husserl championed a qualitative perspective as a necessary starting point in academia. He employed interpretative practices to differentiate forms of intending meaning, experientially and linguistically. He applied rational principles and a novel set of interpretations because mental processes themselves do not appear: Their conscious end-products do. With respect to contemporary psychology, it is possible to characterise Husserl’s approach as “qualitative cognitivism” or “theory of mind”.

What Husserl meant by a “mathematics of the mind” is a theory about consciousness in its social habitat of co-consciousness, for use in any applied psychology, for instance. In summary of this overview, there are five essential steps to phenomenology.

First, there is a need to become self-reflexive about the forms of intentionality that create different types of sensation, meaning and temporal givenness in relation to meaningful objects in the world of human consciousness. What Husserl actually did was to interpret the implicit, after considering explicit objective appearances of different types. Reflected-on experience is raw data in order to begin such conclusions.

Second, “reductions” are methodical steps to create “attitudes” towards a referent and make regions of raw data for study. There is a manner of looking for finding constancies in relation to a what. The what is how any object is experienced as perceptual, imagined, remembered, empathised, empathised as someone else remembering, so on and so forth.

Third, what is found is that the different senses of meaning-objects, for instance, appear with added sense, often as a result of previous learning from past contexts. The past meanings get added to sensation in the current context. The past meanings need distinguishing through reflection on their source. In some cases, anticipated meanings are added and they may also have a relation to the past.

Fourth, raw data is refined through eidetic imaginative variations. These are thought experiments for the purpose of theorising and determining variables and constancies of sense and intentional relation. Variation is a means of finding the inherent structure of consciousness. For instance, one such structure is the relation of intentionality to the constituted sense of a specific referent-object. Another is the relationship between a self, another and a cultural object (any public object, be it a thing, an idea, a piece of music, another person, a social event or anything that is conceivable).

Fifth, phenomenology concludes on ontologically more independent qualities and relations - in relation to varieties of less fundamental, more dependent sorts of objects and intentionality. Phenomenological concepts have a direct mode of referring to what everybody can acknowledge in first-hand experience for themselves and in the second-hand empathy of what others’ experience. Husserl held a theory of consciousness that interprets what appears in the following way.

  • The meaning of an object (or region of objects) of an academic discipline exists relative to the attitude taken towards it. Husserl believed that approaches that are not transcendental phenomenology cannot escape the relativism of stance with respect to the understandings they find.
  • The answer to the problem of attitudes that dictate their results is to become self-reflexive about assuming fundamental ideas and creating claims. Phenomenology constrains the means for claiming understanding, through interpreting intentionality between contexts.
  • The method compares and contrasts different types of the givenness of objects and interprets their co-constituting intentionalities. “Givenness” means how an object appears as remembered, perceived or written about. The answer is that objects are “intentionally implicated” (or “appresented”) with other objects and other contexts, through the addition of past learning. The term “appresented” means that meanings are added to perception. “Intentionally implicated” means that intentionalities are added together to create composite meanings. The meaning of the object as a whole is that it is (most often) immediately recognised when it is encountered again, once it has been learned. The learned meaning is maintained and updated across time. Such learning is intersubjective, it lies between people. It is developed and becomes automatically recognisable through prolonged, previous contact with it. These learnings form a basis for understanding the past, present and future.

In conclusion phenomenology is a re-interpretation of the everyday experience of being involved through intentionalities with the cultural objects of attention in a reflective manner. The experience of the world and the meaning of others within consciousness are considered as “explicit and implicit intentionality”. This is because many types of intentionality are found by intellectually working out how and from where a meaning has arisen. Psychological meanings, like other types, are abstract in the sense that they are not perceptual. But they occur in relation to the perception of the physical bodies and speech of other people in a variety of contexts. Like Immanuel Kant, Husserl judged between the conceivable and the inconceivable. Phenomenology can be defined as being 7 things.

  1. It is a method of making theory by imaginative variation and the contemplation of enabling conditions and necessities.
  2. It entails hermeneutics because intentionalities can never been seen in others or oneself.
  3. It centres on empathy and intersubjectivity that form a common world of meaning where people gather around any cultural object and understand their view of it as well as empathising the views of others.
  4. It does accept temporarily unconscious objects but not permanently unconscious ones.
  5. It is not empiricism, solipsism or the use description alone but requires the interpretation of mental relationships to conscious mental senses.
  6. It is against psychologism, the mistaking of the applied for the ideal, the natural attitude of the everyday common sense and the naturalistic attitude of natural science.
  7. It can be criticism of other perspectives, from the intentional point of view.

What this means for the practice of therapy is that if a school had no formal account of how we understand the other’s view, then it would be insufficiently self-reflexive. Phenomenology in the human sciences makes a response to more than a century of naturalistic empirical psychology. Husserl made several approaches to empathy and intersubjectivity during 33 years of writing and lecturing.

© Copyright Dr Ian Owen 2015