Thursday, 19 January 2012

Insights into Conciousness - Give Phenomenology a Chance

Phenomenology has it tough. Dismissed by the likes of Daniel Dennett et al as a non-scientific introspective hangover from the likes of Wundt, philosophers and cognitive scientists are often keen to emphasise phenomenology has little role to play in the modern science or philosophy of understanding consciousness

There are those that disagree however, arguing that phenomenology done right, can lead to new insights with regards to how we define consciousness, provide the necessary restraints on experimental research and can in turn guide and influence theory.
Scholars of consciousness have a problem in how to even go about explaining how subjective experience emerges. Whilst phenomenology may not have the solution, it may at least give us some insight into what it actually is we are trying to explain. I think we should give it a chance.

Part of the problem is that phenomenology is often viewed as akin to introspection; a subjective account of first person experience that cannot be falsified and is thus scientifically meaningless. Even the early scholars such as Husserl and Merleau Ponty were keen to emphasise this is not the case. Phenomenology is a method which emphasises 'suspension of the natural attitude', what Husserl calls the 'epoch'. 

The purpose is to teach people to report experiences as they appear from a presuppositionless perspective which can then be intersubjectively corroborated. It is not concerned with how a particular first person experience feels but with improving ability to report or describe the structure of experiences as they appear across subjects, such that we can develop a a better definition of the character of experience.

This may seem a subtle distinction but it is a significant one. Science isn't immune to the problem of first person experience, that is, experiments do utilise subject's reports of experience. Rather than relying on assumptions of folk psychology or unverified reports why not use the phenomenological approach to gain insights into the common characteristics of consciousness.

Dennett would argue that scientists should remain neutral as to the existence of experience. As such they should rely on the reports of experience as data in themselves, rather than being reports of experiential data but as Zahavi explains, this is to simply explain experience away and doesn't get us any further than burying our heads in the sand and deny the problem

So what do modern phenomenologists have to offer?

Gallagher used a 'front-loaded' phenomenological approach to study the phenomena of 'ownership' and 'agency' when someone else moves a part of our body. It is widely recognised that we are able to attribute ownership to, for example, our arm being moved and at the same time attribute the agency to the mover of the arm as separate from ourselves.

The role of phenomenology in this study, was in showing that this recognition occurred as a first order experience as well as a higher metacognitive reflection. This lead researchers to focus the study not on measuring the higher cortical processes for metacognition but on measuring at the motor-sensory level to explain the phenomenon.

One of the greatest achievements of studies such as this has been to help challenge the classic computational approach to mind and arguing in favour of embodied cognition, which views the role of the body and environment as constituents of a dynamical system, essential for cognition and processing.

This is just one example of how the phenomenological approach can improve our definition of consciousness, constrain research and guide theory - arguably to the extent of a cognitive revolution with a complete paradigm shift in psychology and the study of cognition and consciousness.


Gallagher, S., & Brøsted Sørensen, J. (2006). Experimenting with phenomenology Consciousness and Cognition, 15 (1), 119-134 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2005.03.002
Zahavi, D. (2007). Killing the straw man: Dennett and phenomenology Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 6 (1-2), 21-43 DOI: 10.1007/s11097-006-9038-7


  1. Often phenomenological studies can provide us with a deeper and more complex understanding of the factors at play. It might not be scientifically verifiable, but we need to get our ideas from somewhere and I think phenomenology is the best way to do that. Then, we can do "proper" scientific experiments to test our hypotheses. I myself quite like the idea of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. I think it's a fab way to find out more about people's experiences!

  2. Gallagher's stuff is very interesting.

    Dennett really annoys me sometimes. What on earth are we trying to do as psychologists, if we are not trying to help explain why someone experiences something in a particular way?!?(And I'm saying that as a radical behaviorist!)

    1. Ha!

      I do worry sometimes that I am very biased towards Dennett without enough reading to justify it. But in the very limited areas that I have read, he pisses me off!

      Hard problem - there is no hard problem because we can (or will be able to) explain the functions of perception etc and there's nothing additional left to explain. What about the SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE OF THESE functions otherwise we are just robots!

      Stream of consciousness - There is no SOC because there is no cartesian theatre to view/experience it in. OK true, I would agree with the first bit but there is still an EXPERIENCER, it just doesnt reside in our heads. We still experience things as embodied human beings.

      As for his hetrophenomenology and questioning the existence of whther we actually experience things or not...perhaps someone should kick him in the shins and see if he stays neutral about his experience then.

  3. Great article. I'm very interested in how a phenomenological approach can provide anecdotal evidence of psychoacoustic phenomenon.
    Phenomenology provides a great basis for understanding sound design.

  4. @MPS Just kick Dennett in the shins. His response would prove nothing. Just do it.