Essays and Stories
by Seyed P. Razavi

What is phenomenology? [1]

In this post, I will introduce you to phenomenology. This is a philosophical discipline that tries to makes sense of our first-person conscious experience. This will be a summary of the approach and why it may be a fruitful one. In a future post, I’ll consider some worries about the approach and present the arguments of one of its detractors, Daniel Dennett.

Phenomenology attempts to provide a careful analysis of descriptions of lived experience. It’s noteworthy that phenomenology doesn’t consider itself a form of introspective psychology. For Edmund Husserl and later phenomenologists, the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ experience was a metaphysical fallacy. Their primary concern is the phenomena of experience and the conditions of their possibility. Or put another way: how things appear to us and what makes us the kind of beings which can have experiences at all.

Husserl rejected the view of Kant that we only experience mere appearances. That the reality of the objects of our experience are completely hidden to us. The rallying cry of the phenomenologist was “back to the things themselves”. This is a call to return to examining how things appear to us without the learned prejudice towards common sense realism. Appearances may not always match, as a matter of how things appear under different circumstances. Yet that doesn’t make phenomenology something distinct from science, concerned only with how things seem. Instead, Husserl regarded phenomenology as providing a new epistemic foundation for science.

Let us now explore the key elements of the phenomenological method. These are (i) the epoché, (ii) the phenomenological reduction, (iii) eidetic variation, (iv) intersubjective verification, (v) formalization, and (vi) translation. Behind the jargon, these are procedures that anyone can train themselves to follow.

To understand the procedure Husserl called epoché, we have to first understand what Husserl names the natural attitude. This is the default commonplace view that we are minds experiencing a ‘theory-independent reality’. Thus, the aim of natural science (alone) is to gain objectively valid knowledge of this reality.

In contrast to this view, phenomenologists say third-person science is not the only means by which we can get knowledge. Philosophy is there to investigate the basis by which this broader knowledge is possible. Yet to achieve this difficult task, we have to put aside our acceptance of the natural attitude. (To “bracket” it). This suspension of our inclination towards the natural attitude is the epoché. At its core, it involves focusing on reality as it presents itself to us. The objects of experience are then examined without recourse to theory-laden explanations.

In practice, this begins by recording detailed descriptions of our first-person experience. So, I record that I am looking at a red star-patterned ball in a child’s room. That reminds me of our playing together earlier.

If this seems like introspection, the mistake is in assuming our mental acts belong to a closed interior world. Rather, the phenomenologist sees the objects of thoughts, as made manifest to our consciousness, as constituted for us in varying aspects by the objects themselves. There is no view from nowhere, no objective third-person vantage by which we can analyse this world. We ourselves are not another object in the world but rather the subject for the world. In describing our experiences, we are not describing re-presentations of our experiences but our experiences in toto. The description of the experience of looking at the red star-patterned ball is not a third-person description of events. It is my lived experience.

In the philosophical reflection that follows, there is the phenomenological reduction. This correlates the interdependence between the structures of our experience with the ways in which these appear to us. In this phenomenological attitude, our interest is not only in the mental act but also in the subject which is experiencing the mental act. As distinct from the psychotherapist, the phenomenologist is also interested in the world of the subject. The method captures epistemic claims about the world and subject, not only psychological facts. In describing the experience of looking at the red star-patterned ball, I capture the perception and my disposition. But I also say something about the world in which there is such a ball and such a room.

Besides the epoché and reduction, traditional phenomenologists make use of two other tools. The eidetic variation is the procedure used to find the invariant characteristics of the things we experience. Here we consider the objects of our thought. We attempt to imagine them without the contingent characteristics they have. We do this to discover what can be taken away without changing what the object is to us. Some characteristics when modified change the object so it is unrecognisable. These are the invariant structures that constitutes the object. For example, from the experience of a red star-patterned ball in a child’s room I strip away first the colour and still find the ball recognisable. Then taking everything but the shape of the ball away, leaving it with no colour, design or location, I grasp what it is for the ball to be a ball qua ball.

Finally, we corroborate our experience with the experience of others. This intersubjective verification maps the structures of our experiences so they are no longer tied to a singular perspective. Now we transition from the individual experience of the red star-patterned ball to the universally recognised structure of the experience of a ball.

Later neuro-phenomenologists have attempted to bring this methodology into a naturalised framework. Foremost by formalising phenomenological descriptions using a notation proposed by Marbach. After translation, the formal notation is mathematically compared with formalised third-person reports from empirical psychology. So, first- and third-person accounts can be mapped to provide a combined naturalised account of experience. Whether this is successful awaits more evidence. Neuro-phenomenologists such as Dan Zahavi are at the forefront of this application.

Having introduced phenomology, in the next post I will consider some worries about the method. Plus the strong objection raised against it by the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Further Reading

Gallagher, Shaun, and Dan Zahavi. 2007. The Phenomenological Mind: An Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science. Routledge.

Thompson, Evan, and Dan Zahavi. 2007. ‘Philosophical Issues: Phenomenology’.