Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Phenomenology
Written as Chapter Two for a book on phenomenology and counseling, Paul Bloland, ed.
Counseling is a practical field, in which specific actions are taken to achieve prescribed ends. The field exists for the sake of those ends, but, like all practical domains, it presupposes a body of knowledge. The intention to achieve the ends in view by given actions is inseparable from an assumed knowledge that the actions bring about the ends. But what method is appropriate to gain the knowledge presupposed in counseling, or to guarantee that what passes for knowledge in the field really is knowledge? It certainly is not just the method of empirical observation, as commonly understood, or that of deductive theory construction, though both of these may play some part. The question is quite difficult. Indeed, the “knowledge” underlying counseling seems to have three strikes against it from the outset. Its subject matter is not objectively sense-perceptible, is not rigorously causal or deterministic, and is not precisely measurable or quantitative. How could one possibly have knowledge of that sort of material?
Some researchers in counseling have suggested that the method by which knowledge is gained in their field is phenomenological, and that this method is capable of dealing with the substance of human life to provide, or at least lay the foundations for, knowledge for use in their work. Our aim in this chapter is to explain what phenomenological method is, and to discuss its relevance to counseling research and practice.
In many fields of study today, a “phenomenological” approach is recognized as one legitimate type of inquiry. In physics, for example--following long-established usage--“phenomenological” laws are understood to be generalizations which simply describe regularities in physical events of various types, without regard to their explanation or derivation. (Cartwright, 1983 pp. 2-3) In psychology or sociology one is less likely to hear of phenomenological laws, but phenomenological “approaches,”“studies,”“observations” and “facts” are commonly discussed. Here too an absence of explanation is stressed--at least initially. Experiences or social structures are to be studied without preconceptions or biases as to what they must be or what they cannot be, and without regard to how they might be explained or explained away. The effort is to grasp and describe them, along with their internal complexities and their obvious interconnections, simply as they present themselves in the various ways possible. This effort distinguishes phenomenological work in all of its forms, whatever else may come to be involved.
In the “Introduction” to his comprehensive survey, The Phenomenological Movement, Herbert Spiegelberg (1969) has documented the emergence of the term “phenomenology” and its use in philosophy, the natural sciences and other intellectual domains from the 18th to the 20th century. But phenomenology is not merely one dimension of various recognized fields of knowledge: especially not one to be invoked, as is frequently supposed, just at that point where the “really rigorous” or “standard” methods of the particular discipline fail. Rather, its most important bearing is upon knowledge in general, without regard to specific types of objects of knowledge. It is, primarily, a pervasive tendency of modern intellectual culture based upon the fact--which the major philosophers involved (e.g. Kant, Hegel, Wm. James and Husserl) all very well understood--that “pure description” can and must be applied reflexively, to human cognition and consciousness itself.
Phenomenology arose as an attempt to clarify the general nature of knowledge, especially in its scientific formulations, and to dispel the prejudices of dogmatic Empiricism as to what knowledge or consciousness itself could or could not be or be of. From its inception it was a response to the increasingly subjectivistic and skeptical interpretations of human consciousness which have, somewhat paradoxically, accompanied the rise and development of modern science and undermined the cognitive status of all, or nearly all, claims or beliefs about the meaning and nature of human existence and experience.
David Hume, who in so many respects is the quintessentially “modern” thinker, concluded his own 1777 Enquiry into the nature of human knowledge--culminating a 300 year chapter in European thought--with these portentous words:
“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these <viz. his own Empiricist> principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” [Hume 1902, p. 165]
We emphasize that this statement must be viewed, not just as the conclusion of a philosophical argument, but also as the definitive expression of a massive cultural shift to the era in which we live. Pitkim Sorokin (1957) describes it as the shift of European civilization to a sensate culture, for which--in precise polar opposition to the Classical world--sensation or sense perception is made the criterion of reality, knowledge and value. The point of Hume’s statement is that only what is quantifiable or what is given in sensation can be the subject of human understanding, knowledge or science. Moreover, as he elsewhere argues, quantity is not a part of reality, but is, to speak roughly, only a matter of how we think or how we view the world.
Cultural dominance of this and similar views explains why physics (or perhaps “natural” science generally) is frequently presented as exemplary of what knowledge should be. Physics is “real” or “hard” science, it is said. It is felt that only what can be put to empirical (that is, basically, sense-perceptible) tests, or formulated in terms of quantities or number, is worthy of confidence and respect. The very best knowledge is naturally taken to be that which combines, in a logically rigorous manner, both empirical testing and quantifiability. It has been widely supposed for some centuries that physics has the remarkable combination in question, and hence is the very best of knowledge.
Now something of this attitude toward physics still remains today, and it obviously leaves most of the recognized fields of intellectual labor, not counseling alone, in a quite dubious position. But this is especially true for the applied fields and the arts. History, political science and anthropology, psychology, philosophy, literary theory and linguistics: these and similar areas in the humanities and the ‘social’ sciences are not remotely about to be reduced to, or replaced by, empirically testable or quantifiable theories. And as to practitioners and artists of the various types, they may talk a fine, authoritative and entertaining line about their work. But do they really know anything about what they deal with? Or are they just “good at it”?
Indeed, our world may not much care about artists’ ”knowledge.” But the lawyer, the teacher, the administrator and the counselor had better have some defensible claim to genuine knowledge as the basis of their practice, or they are de-legitimized within their professional context and may even be brought before the law. Yet, why is this so, and how is it even possible, if “real knowledge” is restricted as the contemporary period generally suspects or stipulates?
It has often been pointed out in philosophical circles that Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding itself, and especially the very passage just quoted, does not refer to the quantifiable or the sense perceptible. On its own principles, then, it must be committed to the flames. Human understanding or knowledge, as a subject of inquiry, is neither quantifiable nor sense-perceptible. Hume is simply self-refuting. Few people know anything about him anyway, and so his opinion hardly matters today.
Yes, all of this is certainly true. But such a response will not succeed in removing the deep, enduring and culture-wide conviction that only the quantifiable or the sense-perceptible can be truly known, and accordingly that the human self, with its experiences, meanings, consciously structured environment and history, can never be the subject of genuine knowledge or science. It is in response to this position on the general nature and possibilities of knowledge that Phenomenology arose. As such a response it continues to be relevant today.
Phenomenology in its distinctively contemporary form originates from and develops through the work of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). A widely used, non-technical dictionary simply describes him as: “German philosopher; founder of phenomenology.” (The American Heritage Dictionary, 1981) After extensive studies in mathematics under Carl Weierstrass at Berlin (during 1878-1881), he received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of Vienna in 1883. His intention had been to seek a post in mathematics in the Austrian universities, but Franz Brentano’s lectures and companionship in Vienna during the years 1884-1886 impelled him into the field of philosophy instead. He was credentialed to teach philosophy at Halle (a. S.) in 1887, under the direction of the psychologist Carl Stumpf, another close associate of Brentano’s. (Schuhmann, 1977, pp. 9ff) The document which served as the basis for his certification in Halle, his “Habilitationsschrift,” was, quite understandably: “On the Concept of Number.” (Husserl, 1981) Of the three who examined him, one was Stumpf, and another was Georg Cantor, the originator of set theory, and Husserl’s colleague and neighbor in Halle for many years.
Arithmetic is like counseling in that its subject matter, number, is not empirical and cannot be understood through the analysis of sense-perceptible data. Although this is no place for a full account of Husserl’s early study of number, several of its features are significant for the understanding of contemporary phenomenology. Mathematicians in the last half of the Nineteenth Century were very concerned about the intellectual “Foundations” of their discipline. Husserl’s famous teacher, Weierstrass, had conjectured that the whole of mathematics could be founded in an appropriately clarified concept of number. Accordingly, he took as his first task to answer the question: What is number or numerosity? That is, what is it that is had in common by all complexes which are correctly regarded as “a number of objects.” The objects which make up a number of things may of course be of any type or description whatever: real or imaginary, concrete or abstract, physical or mental. Anything and everything thinkable is countable, subject to number, in combination with any other, or any other type, of object. The four cardinal virtues or the prime numbers between 1 and 10 are as much “a number of things” as are the major river systems in Africa and the moons of Jupiter. The Nile and courage are two, and not three or one.
It will therefore be no ordinary quality or relation which constitutes the common feature of groups which are “a number” of these widely divergent types of objects. It is possible to show that what we are essentially focused upon when we are aware of “a number of things” cannot even be such widely inclusive relations as time, space or mere difference. (Husserl, 1981, pp. 98-111) In these circumstances Husserl has recourse to painstaking description of the acts of cognition in which, precisely, a (small) number of objects as a number of objects is directly present to us in perception. Careful examination of these acts of number presentation is presumed to provide sure access to the universal characteristics which make up the essence of number.
Clear cases of such acts are supplied by the ordinary circumstance in which we count small groups of sense perceptible objects. For example, we count pencils on a desk or cattle in a field. These complex acts are found by reflexion to involve sub-acts of characteristically emphatic and ordered noticing of objects selected from the broader field of consciousness. Moreover, the sub-acts exhibit a reciprocal awareness of place or order with reference to each other; and, within the limits possible to the human mind, they are retained in that order for the duration of the act of counting. As in all inquiries which take the phenomenological turn, the verification of such claims as these is only possible through examination of “the things themselves,” i.e. the subject of inquiry, which in the case at hand are acts of counting, along with the resultant inclusive acts in which numerical groups are perceived as wholes. These acts can and must be realized and reflected on in oneself, to see what they involve. One must count and see what counting involves and what it brings to consciousness.
But the acts of counting are not themselves number, of course, nor do they produce number, any more than the acts involved in hearing a symphony are the symphony, or produce it. Rather, through those characteristic acts number itself, in the form of the specific, smaller numbers, is presented to us as the essential generic feature of the unified “groups” which we find before us. The act of counting--verbalization need not be involved-- is how we “look at” or put ourselves in position to see number by bringing the characteristically unified group, “a number of things,” to presentation. Number itself, or numerosity, is then the generic, unifying structure of the groups thus seen.
The groups do in fact have a perceivable unification or “togetherness” interrelating their elements. It is one which clearly excludes other objects in the field of consciousness, or omits them, but includes precisely those objects that have been enumerated in the sub-acts of the type described. The “inside” and “outside” which that peculiar type of unification constitutes is something of which we are directly and continuously aware as we intuitively count. (1981, pp. 97, 114) When we lose awareness of it we have to “start over again.” Everyone has had this experience. Here again one must and can see for oneself. That is THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE.
This objective, generic type of “togetherness“is number, or numerosity. The particular numbers, one, two, three, etc, are its specifications, just as yellow, blue and red are species of color. The concept of number, by contrast, is the repeatable and shareable thought or idea of that objective unity. The concept refers to (is fundamentally “of” or “about”) the peculiar type of unity or relatedness which we see in concrete groups, but it also refers to the objects in the groups. It refers to them merely as “something,” regardless of how they may be further qualified or determined. (Husserl, 1981, pp. 116-117) These two references are the parts of the concept of number, the two aspects of aboutness which it contains. The concept is “analyzed” by discerning its parts.
Following the lead of his famous predecessor in the fields of logic and mathematics, Bernard Bolzano, Husserl designates the objective unification within numerical groups by the word “and,” and the objects so unified by the word “something.” (pp. 115-117) Thus the concept of number is expressed by the indeterminately limited expression, “something and something and...,” and the corresponding objective essence, number itself, can be referred to by this same phrase. (Husserl, 1970a, pp. 84, 166)
We now have before us a case of phenomenological inquiry, in which an objective essence and the corresponding concept are clarified. But in order to understand the phenomenological enterprise correctly, we must not think of what is offered here as a definition. Definition, an explanation of meanings in terms of other meanings, always stays within the domain of meanings (or concepts), and--however useful in other respects--never acquaints one with objective essences themselves. Such an acquaintance, on the other hand, is precisely what phenomenology requires and offers, as a condition of all further understanding in a field of inquiry. Definitions are to be trusted only when the correlative essences have previously been clarified through a direct awareness, and terminology carefully adapted to them--as we see, hopefully, with the peculiar type of numerical unification, the numerical as such, discussed above. The phenomenologist is wary of definitions, which tend to incorporate unchecked prejudices with regard to a subject matter. He never works from them alone or primarily. (Reinach, 1969, p. 196)
Moreover, the fundamental concepts of philosophy and of the various special fields, from arithmetic to psychology, are insufficiently complex to permit definitions. This is a familiar point that has through the centuries been made by many philosophers and scientists concerning basic concepts. (Descartes, 1959, p. 134) In a slightly later work, incorporating and extending his early essay on number, Husserl insists that what he has offered as a foundation for arithmetic is not a definition at all. His description of what can be done toward the clarifications of ultimate concepts, such as and, something and number, is also his best statement on the earliest form of his philosophical method, which through slight modifications later became his “phenomenological” method:
“What one can do in such cases consists only in pointing to the concrete phenomena from or through which the concepts are abstracted, and laying clear the nature of the abstraction process involved. One can, where it proves necessary, rigorously mark off the concepts in question by means of repeated paraphrases, and thus prevent the confusion of them with related concepts. What can reasonably be required of the exposition of such a concept in language (e.g., in a science which is based upon it) would accordingly, be this: it should be well-suited to place us in the correct attitude for picking out for ourselves those abstract moments in inner or outer intuition which are intended, or for reproducing in ourselves those psychical processes that are requisite for the formation of the concept.” (Husserl, 1970, p. 119)
With this statement before us, along with Husserl’s actual procedure in the case of number (arithmetic), we can see four stages in his early method:
In his earliest investigations Husserl’s primary interest lay in clarifying the objective essences upon which (he supposed) mathematics was based. An interest in essences in general, on the part of early phenomenologists, led to the characterization of phenomenology as simply “essence intuition” (Wesenschau)--a characterization which was especially appropriate to the older segment of the 20th Century Phenomenological Movement (Spiegelberg I, 168ff), and which certainly marked an unmistakable emphasis in Husserl’s early work. As late as 1907 he still described phenomenology as “the general doctrine of essences,” adding, “within which the science of the essence of cognition finds it place.” (Husserl, 1964, p. 1) But it was precisely his work in the philosophy of mathematics that soon caused him to shift his primary emphasis away from objective essences to the essences of experiences themselves. This was because he found himself caught up in a mistake about, precisely, the essence of mathematical thought, on specific type of human consciousness.
He knew by 1891, four years after his Habilitationsschrift, that work in mathematics, “mathematical consciousness,” has little or nothing directly to do with the essence of number. Looking at mathematical experience itself he found that the working mathematician rarely ever thinks of number, or even particular numbers, as such. Much less does he bring number itself or particular numbers fully present to the mind. (Husserl, 1970, pp. 190-193) Rather, he operates with an elaborate, historically developed symbolism, which sets its own problems and research agendas, and which most of the time is not interpreted by the one using it as being about anything at all. It functions as an algorithm, which perhaps admits of several interpretations, but does not require one. The hope of elucidating the science of mathematics in terms of number proved, accordingly, to be based upon a prejudice, a misunderstanding, and not upon what mathematics as a cognitive discipline really is. (Willard, 1984, Chapter III) It was the discovery of this mistake which accounts for Husserl’s turn, in the early 1890s, from the primary study of objective essences to a primary focus upon the essence of experience or consciousness in general and upon the essences of the most general types and distinctions within consciousness.
This new primary focus, which developed over a period of years, changed nothing whatsoever in the four methodological points listed above. However, once attention turned to elaboration of the essences of experiences, features of acts of consciousness were discovered which led to the full-blown phenomenological method of Husserl’s mature years.
The First of these features concerns the fullness with which an act of consciousness grasps its object. This feature provides a standard by which any representation of a given object could be assessed to determine its cognitive weight or value. Husserl discovered that every representation or thought of an object, fact or essence has implicit in it a course of further experience through which the same object (or fact or essence) can be more adequately conceived or understood--at least until that point is reached where there is nothing further to be grasped about it and the object is completely given as it is in itself. Any experience which is “closer” in an active progression toward the object concerned is said by Husserl to be a fulfillment of the more remote experiences in the progression. (Husserl, 1981, 134-135; 1970b, 675-765)
It is a trite but important observation that any physical object, for example, projects a continuum of perceptions--from very weak and obscure to very strong and clear--with regard to its existence and nature. Thus we can obtain progressively better perceptions of a stone by drawing closer to it, touching and lifting it, the very same object all along, or walking around it. But a similar point is to be made with every type of object. The number three, for example, and many other abstract structures or universals, including many of those which qualify experience (“experience essences”), can be obscurely thought of or referred to, but can also be grasped in a completely clarified manner. (Tragesser, 1984, pp. 116-117) Intentionality itself, the ofness and aboutness which qualifies every conscious act in a specific direction, is another case in point, as is “apperception,” the use of a sensation, image or symbol to intend something other than itself. We may, of course, think or talk about these experience structures in a loose manner, but we can also fully bring them before our minds as they are in themselves--just as (though these cases are different in other respects) we do with colors or tones, or with the peculiar “togetherness” in “a number of things.”
The contrast between experiences in which the object itself is present--“absolutely” (Husserl, 1958, p. 139) or “bodily” (p. 92) present, as Husserl says--and those in which it is, in varying manners and degrees remotely and incompletely present, is the first methodological foundation of Husserl’s mature phenomenology. It is a contrast which will certify itself to anyone who reflects upon their own experiences, and is implicit in all ordinary thought and action. With some types of consciousness, and especially the consciousness of our own mental acts--feelings, memories, images, perceptions, valuations and so forth--to confirm this contrast may require more thoughtful labor than we care to invest. (Husserl, 1980, p. 2) But we must make that investment if we wish to understand the nature of our cognitive acts and other conscious states. Only when they are given to us in the best possible fashion, whatever that may be, are we in a position to know what they are and to speak with justification about them.
It is in the light of this fundamental contrast between experiences of the same object, between those which are more remote from the object and those that are “closer” or closest to it, that Husserl enunciates his “Principle of all Principles:
“Every intuition which gives its object underivatively (originar) is a source of justification for knowledge, and all that presents itself in intuition underivatively (in its “bodily actuality,” so to speak) is simply to be accepted as it gives itself out to be, though only within the limits in which it so presents itself. (1958, p. 92)
This “principle,” together with the contrast (described above) underlying it, provides the rationale for the constant cry of phenomenology, “To the things themselves.” The thing itself, whether it is a psychological event or something else, is to be the ultimate source of our knowledge of it. Moreover, the extent and manner in which any type of object can be “itself given” in intuition will be determined precisely by examination of the possible experiences of that type of object, and in that way alone. Those possible experiences must be examined in order to determine how the correlative objects are to be known. Speculation, stipulation, hypothesis or apriori dogmatism about them, or about cognitive experience in general, are simply irrelevant, no matter how strongly sanctioned by our professional culture.
A second feature of acts of consciousness which plays a major role in Husserl’s mature phenomenology concerns the mere presuppositions or conjectures about those aspects of their objects which are not fully given to our awareness. Physical entities and events are essentially the sorts of objects which are always given from only one of several possible “perspectives,” therefore only relatively, and never fully. There is always some aspect of them which is not given. By contrast, experiences--conscious acts, such as my present perception of this paper or a memory image of my mother--are not given from a perspective which necessarily excludes other perspectives on the same object. Of course they can be incompletely or inadequately given, and often are, or are thought of and referred to in ways which do not grasp their full reality. But in their case such deficiency also can be overcome. They can be made fully present, both in their existence and their nature or essence. (Husserl, 1958, p. 139) My perception of this paper or my awareness of a pain in my foot, for example, are mental acts whose general nature and existence are fully given, though of course their manifold relations to other things, e.g. the chemistry of my brain, are not. That they are, and what they are, can be known adequately and with complete certainty.
Essences also, and especially (for our present purposes) the generic essences of experiences, can be fully given for what they are, if we take the trouble to learn how to bring them to their own special type and degree of “underivative” intuition. It is in this way, Husserl proposes, that we rid ourselves of “presuppositions,” or mere assumptions, in our investigations of experience essences, including the essences of cognitive acts such as perception, conception, judgment and inference. The methodological requirement of presuppositionlessness explicitly emerged in Husserl’s phenomenology long before he stated “the Principle of all Principles” (see 1970b, 263-266), but it clearly presupposes that principle. Presuppositions, mere assumptions, are not--in essence are not-- experiences in which objects are underivatively given. Hence, in the interests of knowledge they are to be replaced or transformed by underivative intuitions of the objects (i.e. experience essences) which the presuppositions are about.
Let us consider a case. The presupposition that when I see a tree, for example, I am really intuiting a tree image which is literally in my mind, and inferring the existence or a tree outside my window, or “constructing” a tree, is tested by examining the perception of a tree, the mental event or state in which the seeing of a tree consists, to see if that is what is truly happening in it. Hypotheses to the effect that it must be happening because, for example, I do not see a tree until certain events occur in my brain, or because I might see a tree where no tree exists, are not allowed to blind us to the fact that the seeing is clearly not the seeing of an image at all, but of a tree--even in the case of hallucination. (1970b, p. 559) We do know what the seeing of an image is, and we know what inferring or constructing is, and they are not what is occurring in the perception of a tree in ordinary circumstances. Those who say they are invited to describe exactly how they are occurring, and not merely rest upon prejudices to the effect that they must be occurring.
Our presupposition about the nature of a type of consciousness may, on the other hand, be confirmed when we bring a relevant case of experience (with its peculiar experience essence) to underivative intuition. But, since experiences and their essences can be absolutely given, our investigation of them is never complete, our knowledge claims about them never are what they should be, until all presuppositions have been removed, either by refutation or by full confirmation in the light of “the things (experiences) themselves.” The removal of all presuppositions is the second methodological foundation of Husserl’s mature phenomenology.
Among the fundamental truths about experiences which Husserl uncovered after he turned to the primary study of experience essences was that what the act of consciousness takes as an object, and the manner in which it presents that object to itself, is wholly a matter of the parts and properties which make up the act itself, and that the object of the act is never among its parts or properties. (Willard, 1984, pp. 221) The object of the act cannot confer intentional direction upon an act directed upon it, because it is only the intentional direction of the act which first makes that object the object of the act. The Medieval formula, Omnis actus specificatur ab objecto (Every act is defined from its object), therefore must not be understood to say that the object defines, enters into the essence of, the act. The act must be intentionally determinate before any object is its object. We can never understand which act an act of consciousness is without understanding what it is of or about. That is certainly true. But this does not mean that the object confers upon the act its direction upon the object. An act can, as is well-known, be directed upon an object which does not even exist, and which therefore can do nothing at all. Whatever is to account for the direction of our acts of consciousness toward their objects, it cannot be those objects themselves. (See Smith, 1982, Ch. 1)
Since it is only the inherent parts and features of the act which determine its intentionality--its aboutness and the manner thereof--and since the object of the act does not fall among those parts and features, no belief or statement about the objects of our acts, or any other thing extrinsic to our acts, may be presupposed or utilized in the analysis of the essence of those acts or in description of the acts’ intentional directions. Such a belief or statement will simply be off the subject.
Now the fundamental conscious attitude in which we all live, the overarching intentionality of our lives, is one which posits the “real world.” This is the world which the natural and social sciences study and the world in which we actually live. It is, of course, related to our conscious acts, but it is also something of which we can never have complete knowledge. Our understanding of it is shot through with hypotheses and presuppositions which can never be converted into full, self-certifying intuitions. That is, alone, enough to show that it is a completely different type of object realm from our consciousness, with its acts, which can be rendered fully present. Hence, in our description of those acts nothing about the existence or nature of this “world” can be included or presupposed.
We need not, and of course we cannot, cease to live in the objective, physical and social world. That is not the issue. We need not doubt that world or deny it. Such attitudes have nothing to do with “the phenomenological reduction.” We simply refrain from the use of our ideas and beliefs about the natural and social world in our descriptions of our cognitive acts. Those ideas and beliefs are bracketed off, boxed off, refrained from, disengaged, like the engine of an automobile which is coasting in neutral gear. Our beliefs about the world always remain fully functional in other respects. Bracketing does not change that. But they are not what turns our investigative wheels while we look into the nature of our cognitive and other mental activities. The world is no part of those activities. If they were we would never be able to use the Principle of all Principles, for we would not be able to move beyond presuppositions, mere assumptions, about the nature of our conscious life, whereas we know that across broad stretches of it we in fact can. The “bracket” is a special device to make sure that the first two principles will have free play in our investigation of the nature of cognition. It is the third methodological foundation of Husserl’s mature phenomenology.
The precise point of the bracket, the epoche and the phenomenological reduction--which in most contexts can be taken as three different ways of referring to the same thing--is better understood when we keep in mind that not only “Nature” is to be disconnected in the manner described, to enable a correct analysis of consciousness, but a number of other realms as well. (Husserl, 1958, pp. 171-182) The pure ego, that which supposedly “lies behind” or accompanies and unites the flood of our conscious acts and states, is also irrelevant to the description of (is no part of) those acts and states themselves, and therefore must be bracketed. (172-173) God, who has played such a prominent role in traditional philosophizing, is also irrelevant to the description of acts of consciousness. (173-174) Transcendent essences or universals, such as those of arithmetic and geometry, and even of formal logic, must likewise be abstrained from in our descriptions of mental acts, as also is the case for the universals dealt with in all scientific domains. (175-179) None of these entities or essences are inherent in conscious acts as their parts and properties, though of course all can be objects of consciousness, just like the natural world itself.
Husserl concludes his discussion of the various realms to be bracketed with the following helpful statement of the methodological point of the phenomenological reduction:
“The controlling practical thought which this extension brings with it--that, as a matter of principle, not only the sphere of the natural world but all these eidetic spheres as well should, in respect of their true Being, provide no data for the phenomenologist; that as a guarantee for the purity of its region of research they should be bracketed in respect of the judgments they contain; that not a single theorem, not even an axiom, should be taken from any of the related sciences, nor be allowed as premisses for phenomenological purposes -- now assumes great methodological importance. Let us therefore protect ourselves methodically [via the “reduction”] from those confusions which are too deeply rooted in us, as born dogmatists, for us to be able to avoid them otherwise.” (pp. 181-182)
The fourth and final methodological foundation of Husserl’s phenomenology has the effect of returning to us all that was disconnected through the phenomenological reduction--though of course not for use in analyzing the essences of acts of consciousness. He discovered in his explorations of consciousness that every experience of an object involves what we in ordinary parlance would call an “appearance,” but what he, to avoid the many confusions which have historically gathered around “appearances,” calls “the noema,” or “the object as such,” the object as it presents itself in consciousness. (Husserl, 1958, pp. 258ff) We can formulate the fourth methodological principle of phenomenology as follows: Seek the reality (or non-reality) of the object in or through the manner in which it appears to us.
Every object prescribes systems of appearances or modes of presentation which, if completable in a certain manner which they themselves suggest, indicate its reality; and when the system of appearances of the object has been lived through, in proper order and completeness, there is no further meaningful question which is to be asked about the reality of the object or about its general nature.
The significance of this principle for research in any domain is that appearances are not be despised, or treated as barring the way to reality, even when they are false. They, and they alone, are revelatory of the way things actually are. No object at any time simply presents itself as it is, allowing us to grasp it without the exercise of our own resolute openness to it and our strong, adequately trained, intellectual initiative with regard to its appearances. We cannot cognitively approach any object except through its appearances; but its appearances, when systematically pursued in accordance with their own nature, will always reveal the general essence and existence (or else non-existence) of the respective type of object. That, if we may so speak, is what appearances are for. Just here lies the connection--of essence, once again--between reason, the capacity to discover the “logic” of appearances and presentations and work through them to objects which are in fact as they are understood to be, and reality. (Husserl, 1958, 379ff)
Even “erroneous” appearances fit into the system of appearances within which reality is securely grasped and non-reality shown for what it is. That the sun appears to move, or that the railroad tracks appear to come together in the distance, are parts of the law governed system of presentations dictated by those very objects as the sole means of revealing them for what they truly are. They could not be what they are unless they appeared as they do under the given circumstances. Appearances are, then, essentially self-correcting, and “for a phenomenology of ‘true reality’ the phenomenology of ‘empty illusion’ is wholly indispensable.” (Husserl, 1958, p. 421) Appearances are deceiving only if the lines of inquiry which they themselves determine are not adequately followed up on. In a sense, they are always profoundly truthful.
In subsection # 75 of his mature work, Ideas volume I, Husserl provides us with the clearest statement of his definitive view on the nature of phenomenology. Phenomenology, we are told, “aims at being a descriptive theory of the essences of transcendentally pure experiences.” (1958, p. 209) When this concise formula is properly understood it contains all of the above exposition. The experiences will be “bracketed” or “reduced,” and in that sense are studied in their pure transcendence of, their essential distinctness from, the world of sense perceptible nature. The term “descriptive” indicates that the essences are to be exposited only as they present themselves to us in full, “underivative” intuition, with no reliance upon mere assumptions or thoughts which have not been certified in direct confrontation with the respective essences “themselves.” And of course it is precisely essences, or the universal, necessary characteristics of mental states and acts, which we are concerned with, though these will usually be rendered present on the basis of a particular case that is brought before us.
It is of the greatest importance for our understanding of the relation between phenomenology and psychology or counseling that we keep in mind the distinction between the particular mental state or event, which has the essence, and the essence itself, which is the subject matter of phenomenological research and insight. The particular mental event, the concretum, is a fluxuating process which cannot be grasped completely in determinate concepts and is, moreover, solidly embedded in a particular human body and the larger natural world. But this does not matter for phenomenological goals. The phenomenological work uses, but then ignores, the individual mental event as an individual, “while it raises the whole essential content in its concrete fullness into eidetic consciousness, and takes it as an ideally selfsame essence, which like every essence could particularize itself not only here and now, but in numberless instances.” (1958, p. 209) The higher level or generic essences “are susceptible of stable distinction, unbroken self-identity, and strict conceptual apprehension, likewise of being analyzed into component essences, and accordingly they may very properly be made subject to the conditions of a comprehensive scientific description.” (p. 210)
I may, for example, be unable to tell whether what I am seeing in the distance is a sheep or a pig, is an animal or merely a physical object. The colors and shapes, the clarity and certainty associated with a perception may not be capable of rigorous determination. In the usual case, however, complete certainty extends at least to the specific nature of the object intended. I know with complete certainty that I am now imaging a two-headed goat, not an automobile, or that what I see on the windowsill is a wasp and not an airplane. (Husserl, 1970b, 412-413) There is, in fact, a vast range of absolute certainties with regard to our mental acts which are available to us, but are not useful in a systematic description of experience essences--beyond their occasional employment in illustrations. For such systematic description we require secure access only to the most general experience types, with the parts, qualities and relations necessary to them. Such access to them proves to be available:
“Thus we describe and determine with rigorous conceptual precision the generic essence of perception generally, or of subordinate species such as the perception of physical thinghood, of animal natures, and the like; likewise of memory, empathy, will, and so forth, in their generality. But the highest generalities stand foremost: experience in general, cogitatio [focused act of cognition] in general, which already make possible comprehensive essence descriptions.” (1958, p. 210)
In all of this work, inference is not absolutely ruled out; but, in view of the fact that all phenomenological knowledge must be fully adapted to what is underivatively present to the mind of the inquirer, “it follows that inferences, unintuitable ways and means of every description, have only the methodological meaning of leading us toward the facts which it is the function of an ensuing direct essential insight to set before us as given.” (1958, p. 210) Analogies or other factors may, prior to intuition, legitimately motivate conjectures as to essence structures, and from these conjectures inferences may be drawn which lead onward in our research. “But in the end the conjectures must be redeemed by the actual vision of the essential connexions. So long as this is not done we have no result that we can call phenomenological.” (p. 210)
This explains why phenomenology is not “a mathesis of experience.” While arithmetic and geometry deal with essences, and hence are eidetic sciences, they impose no requirement that all conjectures and inferred judgments be redeemed by direct, full insight into the essences which they deal with. “Transcendental phenomenology as descriptive science of essential being belongs in fact to a main class of eidetic science wholly other than that to which the mathematical sciences belong.” (1958, p. 211)
Thus far we have tried to keep the description of phenomenology free from views about the nature of human personality as a whole and the nature of the world in which the individual exists. However, there is a very significant group of thinkers who share most of Husserl’s views about knowledge and about knowledge of knowledge, but regard the existential situation of cognitive and other mental acts and states of a given person as an inherent part of the essences of those acts and states. These people are instructively brought together under the title, “Existential Phenomenology,” though sometimes their work is simply referred to as “Phenomenological Psychology.” (See Grene, 1967; Buytendijk, 1962)
Like phenomenology in its classical Husserlian form, Existential Phenomenology is anti-reductionist and anti-scientistic, and if possible even more so. On the other hand, the central datum of analysis for the existential phenomenologist is not mental states or events of the various types, but the individual person in her or his concrete situation. This “situation” involves above all else the individual’s body, which by numerous authors is identified with the person, though never in the sense of materialism. It is the body, not a pure mind, which is the locus of meanings or intentionalities that organize behavior and its correlative “world.” The “situation” also includes the individual’s unique feelings, choices, history and socio/cultural relations.
It is the claim of the existential phenomenologist that mental acts, even of the most intellectually refined and abstract variety, cannot be understood in their essence, cannot be known for what they are, except in the light of the existential details of the individual life in which they fall. This is expressed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1964) as “the primacy of perception,” the thesis that all cognitive acts are relativized in their essence to the individual in the manner of perception, which always manifests the position and posture of the individual who is the perceiver.
There are, according to the existential phenomenologist, no purely psychical cognitions, in the sense of Husserl, Descartes or Plato. (Strasser, 1967, p. 343) The same is true of emotions, valuations and acts of will. Any mental act or state is essentially the act of a bodily being stretched out from its unique perspective into a not yet existent future world for which it bears responsibility, and which therefore is inseparable from its own possibilities. (Buytendijk, 1962, p. 158)
Pierre Totignon summarizes the themes of existential phenomenology under six headings:
Existential phenomenology thus provides a broad range of essential distinctions to be used in the study of experience and behavior. It must be said, moreover, that its contrast with Husserlian phenomenology is often falsely exaggerated. The “world” which it alleges to be a part of the essence of the individual mental state is by no means the world of natural and social facts which Husserl precludes from the mental state by means of the “bracket.” Just how the “existential” world is related to the world of nature remains a highly debatable question, and has been exhaustively debated in the literature.
For our purposes here we must acknowledge that the existential phenomenologist does place a greater emphasis upon the significance of “existential” details for an understanding of human experience and behavior. No doubt something important is gained for psychological understanding, for this constitutes a significant enrichment of the range of phenomenological description as outlined by Husserl. But it is not clear, on the other hand, how well the “presence of the things themselves” (namely, of the “human situation” in its concreteness) can be realized by an existential phenomenology, or what is to take its place as the foundation of our knowledge claims about Existenz. Of course there is no apriori reason why the underivative “presence” must be claimed in all cases where we investigate an experience and its context. Suitability of various method for investigating human reality could be decided from case to case, given the general phenomenological framework laid down by Husserl.
Phenomenology as it has just been described is not excluded by, nor does it exclude, psychology. Nevertheless, there are typically phenomenological and typically psychological tasks to be distinguished. The psychologist is typically interested in how the various components of human personality are and can be influenced by factors both internal and external to it. This need not be understood in any strictly mechanistic sense “beyond freedom and dignity,” as if man were an automaton or merely causal system. It easily leaves room for reason and freedom, where there is constraint, in varying degrees of efficaciousness, without necessitation. But the psychologist is interested in the explanation, prediction and control of individual states, events and acts of individual persons in the context of the natural and social world.
Phenomenology, by contrast, is interested in what these states, events and acts are in their essences, not how their occurrence or non-occurrence is to be explained, produced or inhibited. (Husserl, 1980, pp. 35, 37, 46-47; 1970b, pp. 261, 263f) From the correct apprehension of their essences he hopes to clarify the circumstances in which they actually exist, and come to a general understanding of how their existence and nature can best be known.
Imagery, for example, is thought to be a significant component of human personality. Everyone is capable of identifying it in themselves, of describing cases in great detail, and observing its effects in various life contexts. But what is mental imagery. To answer this question we begin as phenomenologists from clearcases. No doubt, given the nature of such imagery, these cases will be from our own life stream, and not from that of others, though we know that others also experience imagery, and we observe its effects in various ways on them. No doubt we will vary the particular cases of imagery in ourselves as we try to get at the essence of this type of mental event. We will notice such things as that our images are of some specific object, that they resemble (or at least seem to resemble) what they are of, that they are rather schematic or incomplete with regard to the characteristics they exhibit viz a viz what they are of, that they have expanse but not depth (are not three dimensional), that they do not seem to have a back side, are within limits modifiable at our whim, and so forth. We note that in the usual case one has absolute certainty whether or not he is executing imagery of a certain object, say of a two-headed goat or an automobile license plate.
Since the aim here is to be illustrative and not systematic, we can allow this to stand as a suggestion of the phenomenological task with regard to imagery. (But see Sartre, 1963) Once we have done this work, it is safe to begin to raise other questions about the conditions under which imagery occurs, and the influence which imagery has with regard to the occurrence or modification of other types of personality factors. “Safe,” for now we are clear about what it is that has these conditions and influences. For example, we now inquire: How does imagery influence, and how is it influenced by, memory, creative art work, drugs, stimulation of brain segments with electrodes, physical posture and position, etc.? Is there a relation between imagery and cancer, physical illness, social failure or success, and so forth. I may do statistical and experimental research into such matters, or propound and test a theory about the role of imagery in such relationships. And all of this is characteristically psychological work.
Now the question arises: Why should one bother with the phenomenological tasks? Why not just do the psychological work and let that be that? Certainly much good psychological work is done without phenomenological preliminaries or accompaniments, and often, when theoretical or practical concerns are pressing, the psychologist should simply press ahead with his inquiry. But without the relevant phenomenological work being done, the fact is that both research and practice in psychology can be hindered or misunderstood in various ways, and the significance of results achieved will remain unclear. For example, these results may not be assigned the status of “knowledge” because the manner in which we gain our information about imagery does not fit with some professionally acceptable pattern. Or, imagery itself may be rejected because images are taken to be spatial in the sense in which a cup or book is, but (obviously) cannot be “located” in the “real world,” including our brains. It certainly is true that our brains contain no images of two-headed goats or automobile license plates. But on the other hand, apart from some dogmatic outlook that everything which exists and is knowable must exist and be knowable in the manner of cups and chemical processes, there is no reason to reject the existence and knowability of mental imagery merely because they do not fit the “naturalistic” pattern so fashionable in professional intellectual circles at present.
Phenomenologically untested assumptions also influence the logical ordering of concepts with which the psychologist works, and thereby determine the progress (or lack of progress) in research. For example, functionalism, a currently fashionable perspective in cognitive psychology, treats anger, shame, imagery, perception, belief and other mental states or events as unobservables, and hence as theoretical entities which are known only as whatever “explains” publicly observable (i.e. sense perceptible) events. (Maxwell, 1983) This, however, seems very opposed to our ordinary experience of these states. Phenomenology, by contrast, explores what can be learned about anger etc. by developing extensive descriptions of actual cases of such states that we are confronted with and by studying how they present themselves to us with greater or lesser degrees of clarity. We need not assume at the outset, and will not do so if we proceed phenomenologically, that only qualities such as sounds, colors, shapes and movements can be perceived for what they are. A person can be visibly angry or frightened or shamed. The meanings of actions also are visible. In a context where an infuriated mob chases someone, as Stephen Strasser points out, “We see that the man flees and that the crowd pursues him. Note that we do not first see a ‘locomotion’ and then draw conclusions from it, but on the contrary we immediately see the ‘flight’ as well as the ‘pursuit’.” (Strasser, 1963, 163f)
Further, as the psychiatrist Jerry L. Jennings points out, phenomenology is most relevant to current psychological research precisely because it calls into question the naturalistic interpretation of consciousness which today forces psychological research into a behavioristic or physiological mold and thereby eliminates from consideration many possible variables in the overall functioning of personality. (Jennings, 1986; Husserl, 1981, pp. 179-180 and 1958, pp.223-232)
But even with regard to work done without such naturalistic prejudices, there is still a need to understand exactly what has been accomplished in psychological inquiries. Jennings comments:
“Due to its contrasting treatment of consciousness, phenomenology could help psychology clarify what it already knows, so to speak. Basically, phenomenology could help psychology make the implicit assumptions and preconceptions that guide its investigations explicitly clear. Husserl argued that psychology’s preunderstanding of essential acts of consciousness should first be rigorously clarified (through phenomenological analyses) prior to any empirical psychological work, such as psychophysics.” (p. 1236)
Phenomenology is by no means opposed to experimental investigations of personality and behavior. (Husserl, 1980, pp. 19-64) But the experimental work will always presuppose, and will not itself decide, what is to be experimented upon or empirically correlated. And to clarify that “what,” some measure of phenomenology will be required.
The practice of counseling is established on a view--not necessarily coherent and complete--of well-being or normalcy against which judgments about the success or failure of the practice are made. This view contains a large component of behavior and a similarly large component of emotional pleasure or pain. The behavior must not be aggressively anti-social or self-destructive, and the feeling tone must not be at a high level of discomfort. Cognitive clarity or confusion is also a factor, though probably a high degree of confusion would be tolerated if it did not effect behavior. Combinations of harmful behavior with extreme emotional pain and cognitive confusion mark the segments of the continuum of human experience where intervention or special care seems justified; and success with treatment will be judged by whether or not behavior becomes more benign, emotional pain lessened and cognitive clarity enhanced. It will be hard to criticize any treatment, no matter how bizarre it seems, if it in fact results in changes of this type--especially if it is a mode of treatment which can be taught to others and successfully used by them.
Nevertheless, such criticism is possible, especially if there is a wide range of cases--as seems to be true with most psycho-therapeutic techniques--in which success is unclear, or is clearly lacking. It is reasonable to think that counseling or, more generally, psycho-therapeutic techniques could be made more effective if they rested upon a better understanding of the actual processes in the human self. Knowledge is power in this domain also. Further, not just additional bits of knowledge, but greater certainty that our “knowledge“is knowledge, a well-founded grasp of how things really are, and greater certainty about the scope and method of that knowledge, assists the counselor in professional contexts and in his behavior with regard to clients. All of these ends are advanced by phenomenological clarification of the knowledge base of counseling practice. Theoretical sophistication about the essences of the experiences which one has and with which one deals as a counselor, and that alone, can place one in a position to justify ones practice, ones actions, as a counselor. This is no less true for those who deny essences and essence knowledge. In their practice, merely by what they select for attention and how they approach it, they presuppose what they deny.
An additional relationship between phenomenology and counseling has to do with the concrete therapy situation. The attitude of openness and receptivity which phenomenology practices toward experiences and cognitions generally has an important parallel in the relation of therapist to the individual client. Jennings notes that the understanding of phenomenology among psychologist is often exhausted by “the simplistic idea of valuing the individual’s subjective point of view.” (p. 1231) The “phenomenological” approach to the client and client/therapist relationships in the practice of counseling is often understood to be one of unbiased readiness to receive whatever presents itself in the client and the relationship without denials or prejudicial interpretations.
One easily finds here something that is phenomenological in a very specific sense, however, and that need not become simplistic. For this attitude quite certainly is an indispensable element in the method of bringing the client’s cognitive and emotional processes “themselves” to full presence for the therapist. Of course the interest in this context is perhaps not theoretical, but directed toward achieving certainty as to the mental states of this client now before me. There is a basic framework of commonsense understanding of mental processes in ourselves and other. But this framework may be severely distorted so that those processes are forced into hiding, requiring special attitudes or even “techniques” on the part of others (especially the therapist) to allow them to become “themselves present” as what they truly are. An adequate phenomenology will have one sub-division which deals with this special activity of the counselor in relation to the essence of these processes.
Accordingly, phenomenology as a general theory of knowledge clears away prejudices which might prevent the subject matter of the knowledge which underlies counseling practice from standing forth, on its own terms, as what it is. It then clarifies what is to count as knowledge with references to persons and their mental states and acts, in the light of the nature of personality and its essential components. And finally, it inculcates an attitude toward the individual client and the counseling situation which permits the client and the therapist to be “themselves present” to one another.
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