What Does (Husserlian) Phenomenology Have to Do with Psychology and Neuroscience?

Not much, I would think.  Psychology and neuroscience are empirical, scientific disciplines.  Phenomenology (as conceived by Husserl) is an anti-naturalistic, a priori style of theorizing about consciousness.  Well, who cares?  Isn’t phenomenology “philosophically defunct” anyway?  (Brian Leiter’s words in his Introduction to The Future of Philosophy, OUP, 2004.)


In fact, recently there have been scores of articles and books arguing that the sciences of mind and brain need to be supplemented by phenomenology.  The late Francisco Verela, one of the leading proponents of this notion, coined a catchy term that is taking hold:  neurophenomenology.  There is a whole journal by the name of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences.


I think these neo-phenomenologists begin with a reasonable motivation but draw the wrong conclusion.  Over the last several decades, most mainstream psychologists and neuroscientists kept first-person data and consciousness at arm’s length.  With the recent resurgence of interest in consciousness, it seems appropriate to look for a suitable scientific role for first-person data.  Since phenomenology assigns a central role to first-person data, it might seem that phenomenology is what we need.  But that is a non sequitur.


Phenomenology would solve our problem only if it comes with an adequate theory and methodology of first-person data.  As far as I can tell, that is far from being the case.  On the contrary, neo-phenomenologists’ view of first-person data seems to me untenable.


Last fall I presented a paper on this topic, entitled First-Person Data, at the Philosophy of Science Association Meeting.  I criticized the neo-phenomenological view of first-person data and offered a more adequate alternative.  The central idea is that scientifically useful first-person data are the outcome of a process of self-measurement.  I’m hoping to submit the paper soon.  Any comments would be much appreciated.

 

4 Comments

  1. Historical note: it’s perhaps worth noting that Husserl himself conceived of his project as scientific: he considered his method of philosophy a rigorous science [his “Philosophie als Strenge Wissenschaft” appeared in 1910-11]. Of course, whether Husserl’s self-conception matches the facts is another question.

  2. Gualtiero, you wrote “Phenomenology would solve our problem only if it comes with an adequate theory and methodology of first-person data. As far as I can tell, that is far from being the case. On the contrary, neo-phenomenologists’ view of first-person data seems to me untenable.”

    Since I am interested in explaning phenomenal experience (first person data) on the basis of neuronal mechanisms and systems, your claim above caught my attention. I have used the seeing-more-than-is-there (SMTT) paradigm to test the explanatory power of my theoretical model of the brain’s putative retinoid system for what I take to be first person data. In this experimental procedure, the subject (S) views a very narrow vertical slit in an occluding screen. Behind the narrow window in the screen a much wider triangular figure is set in horiziontal oscillatory motion. Below an oscillatory frequency of 2 cycles/sec, S reports seeing two tiny line segments, one in vertical oscillation above the other (the veridical retinal stimulus). Above a frequency of 2cps, S reports suddenly seeing a complete triangle moving in horizontal reciprocating motion (a construction of the brain’s retinoid system). When the height of the triangle behind the slit is independently varied, S is able to maintain width to height equality of the phenomenal triangle by varying the rate of the horizontal reciprocal motion of the almost totally occluded real triangle behind the screen.

    See pp.324-325 here:
    https://www.people.umass.edu/trehub/YCCOG828%20copy.pdf

    The results of the experiment conform to the predictions of the theoretical model. Would you consider this to be a proper methodology of first-person data?

    Arnold Trehub

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    Second Chance to Live

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  4. T. McKinney

    I don’t know a great deal about the recent attempts to appropriate Husserlian phenomenology as a method for collecting first-person data, but I agree that the fit seems a considerable stretch. Husserl was certainly interested in elucidating the structure of consciousness, but his concern with consciousness was (as far as I can tell) pretty much exclusively epistemological in nature. Husserl took Brentano’s thesis that consciousness is intentional and sought to revise and develop it in order to make sense of our knowledge of logic, time, space, other minds, etc. In each case, I think that the method, in spite of what Husserl may at times have suggested, was basically transcendental argument (again, as far as I can tell). That is, most of Husserl’s works reason from a given epistemic capacity back to conclusions about how our experience must (necessarily) be structured, given that we realize that capacity. Not much of a recipe for data collection, if you ask me. So I think Gualtiero’s initial remark is spot-on, but I think the fact that Husserl’s methods relied heavily on transcendental reasoning– far more so, certainly, than introspection– further strains any putative relationship between Husserlian phenomenology and empirical theorizing about consciousness.

    And while Husserl did describe his research program as aiming to renew philosophy as a rigorous science, the sort of science he has in mind is arithmetic or geometry, not psychology or its kin. Husserl describes his subject matter as ‘pure’ consciousness, and his discipline as ‘pure’ phenomenology. I can’t truthfully claim to understand the qualifier terribly well, but I take it the idea is that phenomenology is a science that, like pure geometry, explores ideal relationships and makes no claims about empirical actuality. Likewise, pure consciousness is an idealization meant to expose logical rather than real relationships between mental states and their correlates in the objective world. As Husserl clearly didn’t think of his own work as achieving or providing a framework for empirical research, it seems even less likely to me that any phenomenological methods fit for application in the cognitive and brain sciences would be really Husserlian in nature.

    These are historical footnotes to the main question, of course. But speaking as someone with a nascent interest in both classical phenomenology and the cognitive sciences-who views these as *disjoint* enterprises- I thought they were worth a mention.

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