In a previous post, I introduced phenomenology. This is a philosophical discipline that attempts to makes sense of our first-person experience. In this post, I will present some worries about the method. Followed by the strong objection against phenomenology raised by the philosopher Daniel Dennett.
The first worry is that the process of capturing descriptions is unreliable. The same objection could apply to some psychological experiments. These are as reliant on descriptive reporting of the behaviour or mental acts of their subjects. We gain greater reliability through various methodological approaches such as the phenomenological. Indeed, if we are to consider qualitative factors at all in our scientific explanations, we must do so.
A further worry is whether the epoché sets an impossible task in trying to bracket the natural attitude. Is it even desirable for practitioners of a science to adopt a stance at odds with the natural attitude? Yet, in practice this isn’t an expectation of some zen-like state of ambivalence. It is more a methodological check against pre-empting description with theoretical considerations. Instead of describing the observed phenomena through the lens of say behaviourist theory, the phenomenologist attempts to describe the experience as it appears. The pull towards explaining observations through theoretical terms is unavoidable. We should use philosophical reflection to correct for the impulse.
Yet another objection applies to the process of formalisation and translation. In general, we accept formalisation as a practice within science. Thus it does not seem to be reasonable to deny it a role when dealing with phenomenal experience. The empirical question of corroboration of translated forms, between first- and third-person, remains. It may turn out that phenomenological and psychological formalisations are incommensurate. So there may be good reason to suspect naturalising efforts within phenomenology. If you believe all pursuits of knowledge must be naturalisable this may be where you get off the bus.
Now let me turn to the strong opposition of Daniel Dennett. Alongside his objections against the phenomenological method, Dennett gives his own alternative method of ‘heterophenomenology’ in Consciousness Explained (1993). Dennett’s method takes first-person reporting as raw data. Then this data is fit alongside behaviourist and instrumental data such as from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The approach falls within the spectrum of methods already employed by experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
It is not my aim here to argue against Dennett’s heterophenomenology. Rather my aim is to examine his objections against the kind of phenomenology based on Husserl’s method. Dennett’s objection fall into two categories for the phenomenologist:
The False Positive Problem: “Some beliefs that subjects have about their own conscious states are provably false, and hence what needs explanation in these cases is the etiology of the false belief” (Dennett, 2001).
The False Negative Problem: “Some psychological things that happen in people (to put it crudely but neutrally) are unsuspected by those people. People not only volunteer no information on these topics; when provoked to search, they find no information on these topics. But a forced choice guess, for instance, reveals that nevertheless, there is something psychological going on” (ibid).
The phenomenologist’s response to the first problem would be to deny claiming infallibility for their method. In fact, the method’s design is to guard against error through intersubjective verification. What the phenomenologist claims is direct not infallible knowledge. In the former sense, we have access to the content of our minds without mediation. There is no gap between thought and mind.
Phenomenological research is as concerned with understanding the cause of mischaracterisation of experience. Such analysis is often undertaken with the use of dynamical systems theory. Using mathematical models to consider why one subject’s experience differs from another’s. Or how subjects negotiate meaning. With a similar approach the phenomenologist may deal with Dennett’s second problem. Missing information in one subject’s experience can be diagnosed with the wider reports available.
The fundamental difference in approach lies in the emphasis of what counts as scientific facts. Dennett argues only third-person science can establish such facts. Phenomenologists say facts negotiated through complex systems analysis of first-person reporting is possible. So, these approaches consider different criteria for justification of what counts as knowledge. But they need not be incommensurate approaches.
More so, Dennett and the phenomenologists agree on more than at least Dennett would care to admit. They both think the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ experience is metaphysically mistaken. They don’t regard ‘qualia’ (the qualitative ‘what it is like-ness’ of experience) as something above and beyond what is happening in the subject.
Where they do disagree most is on method but this stems from similar suspicions about error. Dennett notes we are often wrong about what is going on in our mental lives. Phenomenologists argue third-person science starts at the wrong vantage. Describing experience via theory-laden explanations leads to presumptive errors. There may thus be some useful synthesis of ideas between the two camps.
With my brief presentation of Husserlian phenomenology complete, I’ll take some stock. As a method to examine the first-person lived experience, I have defended it against some common objections. I have also considered Dennett’s opposition, providing some possible replies. I conclude by saying there are some good reasons to pursue a program of research using the phenomenological method. With an expectation that it may be fruitful. The challenge remains to make it broadly compatible with natural science. By doing so, valuable insights into the structure of our experience may inform our scientific models.
Dennett, D. 2001. ‘The Fantasy of First Person Science’. 2001. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-72478-2_26.
———– 1993. Consciousness Explained. Penguin UK.