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A Methodology for Modern Phenomenology
A Methodology for Modern Phenomenology
This post continues the series on phenomenology. The previous post in this series was on the problems with traditional phenomenology. Today's post is the most important in the series because it explains the Modern Phenomenological Method, which is abbreviated MPhM.
You may ask what is so “modern” about the method that I am going to be explaining. In order for phenomenology to be “modern” in a way that is analogous to modern science, the following are needed:
- A clearly defined methodology through which reliable theories can be formulated.
- An understanding that so-called phenomenology that is not conducted with anything close to a clearly defined methodology and has not produced reliable theories should probably be considered proto-phenomenology because this is analogous to the relationship between modern science and protoscience.
- A way of demarcating between legitimate phenomenology and pseudo-phenomenology in a way that is analogous to the demarcation between legitimate science and pseudoscience.
The most effective way to formulate a methodology for modern phenomenology is to incorporate the best of what phenomenology and science currently have to offer. This means to take a generalization of the process of traditional phenomenology, which is summarized in an earlier post, and synthesize it with the hypothetico-deductive method of modern science. Clark E. Moustakas proposed something similar to this in his book Phenomenological Research Methods, which involves introspection by multiple people and using science to interpret the findings from such introspective sessions. Moustakas' methodology can be useful, but it lacks an organized way of synthesizing science and phenomenology to produce reliable unified theories. The following is a brief summary of a proposal for the modern phenomenological method (MPhM), which is based largely on the work of Husserl and the modern scientific method and expands on Moustakas' methodology:
- Introspect on the structures of consciousness and reflect on this so that reasonable conclusions can be made.
- Try to understand existing well-respected theories regarding the structures of consciousness.
- Examine the most common beliefs that people have regarding the structures of consciousness, based both on people's explicitly stated beliefs on these matters and also what seems to be implied by the common statements that people make.
- Have phenomenological discussions with others.
- Formulate a transcendental theory, which is done by taking into account all intersubjective knowledge while bracketing out objective knowledge and scientific theories.
- Bring the transcendental theory formulated in step 5 together with all objective knowledge and the well-respected scientific theories that derive from objective data in order to formulate a unified phenomenological theory.
- Explain and describe phenomenological theories to others.
- Try to find evidence for or against existing phenomenological theories. Try to improve upon existing theories.
In order to maximize effectiveness, a phenomenological research project (PhRP) will probably have to go through all of these steps, though not necessarily in this order. Also any step can probably be repeated any number of times. Steps 1 through 4 have to come before steps 5 and 6 because the former are fact finding while the latter involve the formulation of theories that are based on this raw data. Step 7 can only be conducted if there are actual theories to communicate, so steps 5 and 6 have to come first. Step 8 is less of a step in itself as it is a directive to repeat prior steps as necessary and to iterate through some combination of steps 1 though 7 for the purpose of achieving phenomenological progress. While step 1 can only be conducted by one's self alone, there is an inherent social component to phenomenology, which covers steps 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Step 5 can be a social process as well. Each step is explained in more detail below.
Introspection and Reflection
I wrote a post on introspection a while back, which I recommend reading if you wish to understand the method that I am proposing here.
Understanding Existing Theories
There has already been quite a few well thought out and influential works of phenomenology and any new PhRP would likely benefit from an understanding of some of these works. This might include the original works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, etc. or perhaps also that of scholars who have commented on these works. It should also be helpful to research philosophical theories that depend partially on analysis of subjective experience but that might not commonly be called phenomenology, including the works of David Chalmers, John Searle, etc. For the sake of making sure all perspectives on a subject are understood, it would probably also be a good idea to research philosophical theories that are only based on objectivity and do not take into account any subjective experience, such as the works of W. V. O. Quine, Daniel Dennett, etc.
Existing philosophical works, whether they be phenomenological or based on some other style, might include thought experiments that are intended to help stimulate the reader's intuition. Everyone has experiences and gains knowledge from these experiences and everyone should be able to categorize these experiences and understand something about the nature of their experience, though they may need a thought experiment to help them understand this.
Examining Common Beliefs Regarding the Structures of Consciousness
Similar to the need to understand influential phenomenological works is the need to understand the phenomenology of the common people. It is true that common people do not practice phenomenology, but it is a natural part of life for people to introspect and thus people can be expected to have beliefs that derive from their own introspection. Also, if there are structures of consciousness that are common among all or most people then these people would naturally have some understanding of these structures. When someone has beliefs regarding the structures of consciousness then this will be reflected in the statements that they make and how they behave as well.
Sometimes people explain their beliefs regarding the structures of consciousness. Most people do not do this but it is possible for phenomenologists to interpret the statements that they make and other aspects of their behavior and from this to get a good idea of what people tend to believe. The best phenomenological theories are those that seem to explain why large numbers of people tend to believe in certain structures of consciousness. On the whole, there is immense variety amongst people's beliefs in this area, but there might actually be certain core beliefs that are common amongst diverse peoples. If a very significant percent of peoples from various different backgrounds, cultures, and religions seem to all have similar beliefs about the structures of consciousness, and these are beliefs that could conceivable be known subjectively but could not conceivable be known objectively, then it is worth investigating whether these people might be epistemically justified to believe these things.
Phenomenological research projects should study how people behave and what people tend to believe and they should compare this to the conclusions that they come to from introspection. A phenomenologist should be able to observe other people’s behavior and the ideas that people subtly communicate and from this they should be able to come to an understanding of the most common beliefs that people have regarding the structures of consciousness. If the phenomenologist finds that their own conclusions that come from introspection match quite closely these commonly held beliefs, then then this is more evidence in favor of these beliefs. Of course, people believe things all the time that are wrong. Simply because millions of people believe something doesn’t mean that it is true. But if there are common beliefs that seem reasonable then a good phenomenological theory should take them into account.
If multiple phenomenologists are working on a PhRP, it is highly likely that there will not be consensus on every conclusion amongst them. In such situations, these people will have to debate their differences and see if they can come to an agreement. Also even if a phenomenologist is working alone, it is still necessary for them to discuss their conclusions with other people to hear what they have to say. If possible, phenomenologists should consult with scholars who are experts in phenomenology.
Formulation of Transcendental Theories
After all introspective sessions have been completed, all common beliefs have been examined, and discussions have been conducted, phenomenologists can formulate theories regarding the structures of consciousness. At first, these theories should try to only take into account intersubjective knowledge without considering the relations this might have to objective knowledge. This is a technique that Husserl called “bracketing” and he also called theories of this nature “transcendental” because of the similarity this has to Kant's theory of transcendental idealism in which it is thought that one can only actually have knowledge of their immediate sensory data while being unable to know much if anything about external reality. In the strict sense, transcendental idealism is wrong because it is actually natural for people to understand facts about the external world. Husserl, though, argued in favor of a moderate version of this in which it is acknowledged that one only has direct access to their own sensory data and where it is thought that forming knowledge beyond this only becomes possible if one is able to figure out what is implied by their sensory data.
It is helpful for phenomenologists to think in a transcendental way at times. The purpose of this step is for the phenomenologist to try to bracket, as much as possible, any preconceptions that come from knowledge of the external world. This is because it is easy for one to let scientific facts and theories contaminate their understanding of the structures of consciousness if they do not first make an effort to bracket these out and to just look at the intersubjective findings from the first steps of MPhM. Only after these findings have been carefully considered and a theory formulated with only these facts in mind can this new transcendental theory be merged with existing scientific theories. A transcendental theory must be formulated before considering scientific data and theories because if one tries to bracket out preconceived notions of scientific theories then they will be more likely to take seriously intersubjective data rather than to discount this data and to reinterpret it in terms of scientific theories, or in other words, to reduce everything to that which can be known objectively.
Formulation of Unified Phenomenological Theories
Transcendental theories are only temporary because an adequate phenomenological theory must take into account both intersubjective and objective knowledge. Phenomenological theories can be formulated by finding a way that existing scientific theories can coexist with the the transcendental theories that were recently formulated. Phenomenological theories should always be coherent with the findings of modern science, but they need not be in line with every single scientific theory.
There are usually several ways of interpreting scientific data and formulating theories from this. There is, for the most part, a consensus within the mainstream scientific community on many matters, such as the four fundamental forces and the components of the atom. At the same time, there are certain matters, most notably quantum mechanics and how it relates to general relativity, for which there are several competing theories that all seem to equally explain the existing data and are all able to predict future outcomes to some extent.
It is necessary for a unified phenomenological theory to be consistent with scientific theories that have consensus support within the scientific community, but not necessarily for theories that are controversial. If there are multiple competing scientific theories that each seem equally as good in applying to purely objective evidence then it is possible that taking into account transcendental theories can help sort out which scientific theory is best overall. If there is a transcendental theory that has widespread support because of the prevalence of intersubjective evidence in its favor, then it might be possible to apply this theory to each of the competing scientific theories and to see which best fits the combined objective and intersubjective data. From this the chosen scientific theory can be combined with the transcendental theory to produce a unified phenomenological theory that can not only explain the intersubjective data, but also make sense of the objective data in a less ambiguous way than was previously possible.
It is also conceivable that some widely accepted scientific theories could be slightly wrong and for phenomenology to provide some insight that can help improve these theories. The burden of proof would be quite high for something like this so it is unlikely that the scientific community will come around to changing their views unless overwhelming evidence of some form or another is provided. Though it is conceivable that phenomenology could actually shake the foundation of modern science, this is highly unlikely and will probably not become necessary. Phenomenology's best role in relation to modern science is probably to help narrow down the possible interpretations of data for which there currently is nothing close to a consensus theory.
After a unified phenomenological theory is formulated, phenomenologists must explain them to others, both verbally and in print, as detailed as possible. This should document not only the phenomenological theory, but also the process that led to the formulation of this theory. Phenomenologists should document how each of the steps 1 through 6 were conducted for the purpose of guiding others in their own phenomenological studies. The descriptions of each step do not have to be in the same order as they are numbered as shown in this chapter. Although one's own phenomenological study might begin with introspection, this does not mean that the eventual description of this study would need to list step 1 first. It might, in fact, be helpful to the reader first list steps 2 and 3 and then to list step 1. In other words, it might be helpful to first explain the existing phenomenological theories in the same subject matter as the new theory, and then to explain the analysis of any common beliefs that are related, and then to explain the new introspective sessions. The first three steps, which involve fact finding, do need to be explained before steps 4 through 6 are explained because the latter steps involve the formulation of theories.
In order to explain any PhRP to an audience, the phenomenologist will inevitably have to use language terms that have different meanings in different contexts. Therefore, an important aspect of this step is analyzing the different possible meanings of the terms that are used and explaining what these terms are supposed to mean within the context of the PhRP. In fact, it will probably be helpful if this language analysis is explained before any of the other steps are listed because that way the reader can better understand the meaning that the phenomenologist intends to convey.
Those who read or hear these descriptions should hopefully be able to go through similar introspective sessions as the phenomenologist so that they might be able to make similar observations regarding the structures of their own consciousness and so that they might come to similar conclusions, thus creating intersubjectivity. The more clearly written and carefully explained a PhRP is, the more likely it will be that readers will understand what the phenomenologist has in mind.
Finding Evidence For or Against a Theory and Improving Upon Existing Theories
An important element of the scientific method is where scientists can test the theories of other scientists and either verify them or falsify them, and this is also an important element of modern phenomenology. Any phenomenological theory must be open to feedback from anyone else. Existing theories are tested by going through the steps of MPhM and seeing if one comes to the same results as prior phenomenologists did. Any existing phenomenological theory can conceivably be falsified by newly observed counterevidence and/or a newly formulated theory that better explains all objective and intersubjective data. Also when new data is observed that corroborates an existing theory, this is more evidence that this theory is a representation of the laws of nature, at least to some extent.
I believe that this method complements the modern scientific method and the two can be used in conjunction to help us better understand the natural universe. If there is an aspect of consciousness that cannot be fully understood through science, then modern phenomenology should allow us to make progress in this area. This method might also be helpful in understanding the foundation of morality and other mysteries of life. Next week I will provide an example of MPhM in use with a sample PhRP. Please let me know what you think about this proposal at firstname.lastname@example.org.