Phenomenological Psychology

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What Is Phenomenological Psychology?

February 6th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 7 Comments

I often am asked, “just what is phenomenological psychology?”, or “just what is it to be a phenomenological psychologist?”  It all starts with Martin Heidegger (you may grit your teeth, but this part isn’t complex).  Heidegger primarily was concerned with “the question of the meaning of Being,” that is, what it is for anything to exist – all the way from rocks, art, icons, what he called “equipment” or “tools” (everything we deploy when events happen in the world), and what he called “Dasein.”

“Dasein,” roughly, is “human beings.”  Dasein is a type of being who is attempting to discern the “meaning of Being” – not in a “conscious” way, but rather, through what they do.  For example, one might discern the meaning of his or her Being by being a scientist at a university, a roust-about on an oil rig, an executive for a corporation, an artist, a parent, etc.  It’s an ongoing process that lasts your entire life, as you “push into the possibilities” which the future temporally presents.  While of course there are times when you have reflected on this activity, more basically, you have “acted it out.”  Conscious reflection comprises only a small percentage of what we do, and how we “are in the world,” on a routine basis.  On the other hand, even though it engages in purposeful activity, a spider spinning its web (for example) has no concept of the meaning of its Being, and therefore can’t be a Dasein.

Heidegger was concerned with the “structure” or “ontology” of Being in general – not with the “being” (lower case “b”) of particular individuals, which he called “ontic.”  Even though, of course, there would be no understanding of anything, without the being of particular individuals, and their activities, because that’s how the structure and conventions of the world become constituted.  This process occurs over time, may (or may not) be affected by the activities of individuals, may (or may not) be self-sustaining, may (or may not) be influenced by the media, etc.  Examples of ontic characteristics are: gender, place of birth, ancestry, and social class.

Discerning, articulating, and then elaborating on these specific characteristics of particular individuals, and how they determine the nature or modality of that person’s unique being-in-the-world, turned into the discipline that best is called “phenomenological psychology.”  Its primary exponents were Medard Boss and Ludwig Binswanger.  Their principal emphasis was to try to understand what it is to be in the patient/client’s world, and then to build bridges between that and the “conventional” world our culture has established.

They completely rebuked Sigmund Freud’s concept of a “subconscious,” somehow guiding (or influencing) us in our day-to-day activities.  With Heidegger, they also rejected Edmund Husserl’s concept of a “transcendental ego,” performing essentially the same executive function.  They abandoned associated “mental” drivers such as “ideas,” “purposes,” “motivations,” and the like.  There’s no requirement for the patient/client to be “thinking” about what they’re doing, because the main inquiry simply is how they “are” in the world – how they non-consciously deploy the resources at their disposal, and how they non-consciously relate to others.

For this same reason, they also criticized Carl Jung’s theory to the effect each of us participates in a kind of “collective unconscious.”  Jung was on the right track, with his emphasis on the role of culture and society in the development of a patient’s world.  However, his notion this is in the patient’s mind, simply is incomprehensible.   

Phenomenological psychology also isn’t behaviorism, which posits there are no mental structures or events at all, or if there are, they’re irrelevant.  The reason why is, even though it rebukes the idea of unconscious (or sub-conscious) mental drivers, phenomenological psychology isn’t strictly observational.  Rather, it combines what the patient/client actually does, with the projective structure of the patient/client’s world, interpreted retrospectively.

Phenomenological psychology has significant implications for the Western concept of “self.”  Because, it’s not at all clear the “self” (with its corollary notion of the “soul”) exists, in any meaningful sense.  It’s true that, from a therapeutic standpoint, phenomenological psychology depends on some degree of patient/client insight.  In this, it’s a form of “cognitive therapy,” albeit from a different perspective.

It isn’t, however, the “human potential movement” like Carl Rogers, R.D. Laing and Frederick Perls.  They got part of the way there, but then started emphasizing the supremacy of the individual (and the self) over the world (“I’m OK, You’re OK, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” “It’s All About Me”).

Phenomenological psychology, on the other hand, is more concerned with worldly and cultural constraints, and how they insidiously and irrevocably determine an individual’s sphere of activity.  As developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, these factors in turn interact with the patient’s body, the way the body encounters the world, and avails itself of the affordances and prospects the world offers.

Phenomenological psychology also isn’t psychiatry.  Although Boss, Binswanger and their progeny pretended what they were doing worked for more complex pathologies such as dementia and schizophrenia, that clearly isn’t the case.  Those are serious illnesses, just like cancer or heart disease, only they involve complex neurochemistry.  To be treated, they require somebody who is knowledgeable about, and can prescribe, therapeutic psychopharmacological drugs. 

It’s true there’s a shade-off between psychiatry and phenomenological psychology, as the former blends into mood disorders, such as depression and mania (bipolar II).  Mood disorders are a devious combination of neurochemical imbalance, and world mis-relationships.  The best thing to say about this is that phenomenological psychology needs to be alert to the former, and work in conjunction with a pharmacologically-based approach.

Phenomenological psychology also isn’t “cognitive science,” which, properly understood, is a misnomer.  Cognitive science is the activity of trying to connect human feelings (primarily, emotions such as “fear” or “happiness”) with specific activity, or even places, in the brain.  An example is localizing the source of musical emotion, or artistic capability.

Although intriguing, I’m concerned this enterprise is flawed in principle, because it never will be able to compile, much less describe, the myriad factors that go into being-in-the-world.  Such as “common sense,” for example.  Every time you make a list, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of additional factors, which must be considered.

From the reverse perspective, medical efforts to understand (or even cure) mental illness, by removing “brain lesions” and what not, have been an abject failure.  Consider, for example, the thoroughly discredited history of the frontal lobotomy.  In principle, cognitive science’s claims are identical.  If you wanted to eliminate a patient’s sensation of dread, why not just operate on the patient, and remove the part of the brain that lit up on an MRI scan, as the patient experienced that emotion? 

This notion obviously is absurd.  The patient’s feeling of dread is complex, activating centers of activity throughout the entire brain.  More basically, it is inextricably intertwined with moods, which the patient’s body non-consciously absorbs from the world, itself.

In the final analysis, phenomenological psychology is a method of analysis, interpretation, and deconstruction, which primarily is context-sensitive.  This is why it’s critical for there to be a connection with clinical practice – which is appropriate, because the discipline is based on how particular individuals approach their “being.”   From an academic perspective, a purely theoretical approach isn’t particularly interesting.  There is substantial literature on each of its elements.  It seems safe to say most of its component thoughts already have been thought, or at least are being investigated. 

However, it’s quite clear the whole never has been correctly assembled.  Take, for example, a woman with anorexia, in the general category of those now prominently featured on the television show “Intervention.”  Freudian psychology might diagnose she was acting out some complex inner drive to punish her mother.  However, phenomenological psychology would conclude, more intuitively, that she had devised a flawed strategy to cope with the world.  She had the right instinct, which was to bring herself into alignment with the various factors that affected her, or constrained her.  However, she just adopted the wrong means of expressing them.

Similarly there recently have been many hot-off-the-press items involving the pop culture celebrity Britney Spears.  Although she may be pharmacologically imbalanced, her main problem is that she hasn’t developed a style, or a technique, for dealing with the circumstances in which she finds herself.  She too has the right idea, which is that some kind of a relationship to fame, celebrity, paparazzi and the like is necessary and important.  She hasn’t been able, however, to devise a strategy for same, nor does she understand the reciprocal interaction between her and the very media whom she purports to shun.