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The Problems with Traditional Phenomenology


Permalink 10:46:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1825 words   English (US)
Categories: Building Knowledge

The Problems with Traditional Phenomenology

This post continues the series on phenomenology. The previous post in this series was on the developments in phenomenology after Edmund Husserl. Today's post explains some of the problems with the traditional way of doing phenomenology.

I'll start by acknowledging that the summary of the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger that I provided in prior posts barely scratches the surface of their work. There are many influential phenomenologists whose work I did not even begin to summarize, including Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emannuel Levinas, etc. So how, one may reasonably ask, can I then begin to criticize traditional phenomenology when I haven't adequately summarized the major works of this genre? The reason is that most of the content of most phenomenological works, at least most of those conceived after Husserl's development of phenomenology, primarily involve descriptions of metaphysics rather than dealing with the nature and process phenomenology itself, which is essentially epistemological. The purpose of this series of posts is not to criticize the metaphysical conclusions that these thinkers came to and advanced as part of their phenomenology. My concern is with the phenomenological method, or lack thereof.

While I admit to not being an expert on the writings of any phenomenologist, I can summarize how they go about performing phenomenology with regards to epistemology. All of the aforementioned thinkers conduct phenomenology in close to the same way. This process always begins with one paying attention to consciousness as it appears to them (introspecting) and reflecting on this. They might then discuss the findings of these introspective sessions with others. In some cases they might also read some philosophical works and make an effort to interpret these works. Finally, the phenomenologist writes down their conclusions, which are often metaphysical in nature, and then tries to explain their beliefs to people.

This is essentially the phenomenological method as it has been practiced since at least the time of Husserl. The problem with this method is that it is unfortunately quite easy for one to perform these steps to the best of their ability and to nonetheless be very wrong in their conclusions. Epoche, defined as the suspension of all preconceptions, is not fully possible. It may be possible for one to suspend some preconceptions, but one's introspection and reflection will always be contaminated by their experiences in life, their upbringing, their culture, etc. Everyone has information filters and interpreters programmed into their brains and one cannot will these away and just understand external objects exactly as they are in reality.

Heidegger understood that Husserl's notion of epoche was not entirely possible, but he still went about his “circumspection” (which is really just a disorganized mix of introspection and interpretation of things) as if he could understand the reality of being in the world from this. Heidegger actually believed that phenomenology is essentially a way of thinking that has the potential to elucidate the reality of being and that there could never be a general methodology that drives it. The reality that Heidegger failed to see is that simply going about phenomenology alone and without a clearly defined methodology has the tendency to lead to fanciful and unreliable theories. Unfortunately, it is quite possible for any phenomenologist to misinterpret or misunderstand their own experience and from this to come to false conclusions. Even if the phenomenologist is able to understand some facts about reality from introspection and reflection, communicating these facts is another matter. It is quite difficult to adequately explain one's own experiences to the point where others can grasp this meaning and for intersubjectivity to be created from this.

There have been many phenomenological texts that have advanced their own metaphysical systems regarding the structures of consciousness and their relations to the world. Though there is often agreement amongst these texts on some matters, there is more often disagreement and there does not appear to be a reliable way, within phenomenology itself, to figure out which of these metaphysical systems is correct, if any at all are. The best one can do to assess the correctness of a given phenomenological work is to follow the author's train of thought and to try to go through the same introspective and reflective steps as the author does. This exercise may allow one to come to some judgment as to whether a given metaphysical conclusion makes sense, but this likely does little to sort out the confusion amongst the diverse theories of the structures of consciousness that are out there.

The traditional phenomenological method is inadequate towards forming reliable theories and working towards consensus. There is a remarkable contrast between this and the modern scientific method. One notable difference between the two is that science deals with objectivity rather than intersubjectivity, but there are other very significant differences as well. The scientific method involves designing and conducting experiments and interpreting the results and forming theories for how things work. Once one comes up with a theory, someone else can come up with an experiment that either verifies or falsifies the theory based on empirical evidence. So there is constant competition among different parties to come up with theories and experiments that better explain nature and are as verifiable as possible.

Even when following the scientific method, it is expected that scientists will formulate some theories that are not entirely correct. It is also certainly possible for scientists to misinterpret or misunderstand data and from this to come to false conclusions. But since it is a part of the scientific method for scientists to test theories of others and to try to come up with new theories that better explain the past and more reliably predict the future, this allows scientific progress to occur as time goes by. On the other hand, the traditional phenomenological method does not have a mechanism for phenomenologists to test existing theories and to try to come up with newer and better theories.

It is a part of the structure of science for scientists to try to check each other's work and try to find and correct errors. Phenomenology does not have a clearly defined structure through which phenomenologists can check the work of others. When there are competing scientific theories, there are ways within the scientific method of sorting out which of these is more correct than the others. Within the traditional phenomenological method, the best phenomenologists can do try to present arguments for their theories and try to convince others that they are correct. There is no criteria through which these competing theories can be evaluated.

It is probably at least partially due to these problems that traditional phenomenology has not made significant progress towards the end of allowing us to better understand the structures of consciousness. There should be a way of practicing phenomenology more like science is practiced so that these problems no longer exist, at least not to the extent where they are outright hindering phenomenological progress. It should be possible to formulate a clear and detailed methodology for modern phenomenology through which we can achieve reliable knowledge of aspects of nature that cannot be known objectively but can be known subjectively.

This methodology must keep an empirical mindset, though one based on radical empiricism rather than a traditional understanding of empiricism. This methodology must work within the framework of the modern scientific understanding of nature. Modern science has given us enormous knowledge of nature and has proven to be quite reliable towards forming new knowledge. Modern phenomenology should be able to bring to light a better understanding of the metaphysics that underlie conscious experience, but this should work hand-in-hand with modern science.

Though the human brain is the single most complex object in the universe, the physical and social sciences have provided us with a reasonably detailed understanding of its functions and our understanding of our own minds deepen with every new study that is released. Modern phenomenology should make good use of the findings of cognitive science and psychology, rather than operating under the assumption that one can know everything important about the mind from introspection and reflection.

Science does not provide anyone with all the answers. There are always gaps in scientific knowledge and competing scientific theories that seem equally plausible from a purely objective standpoint. There are situations where phenomenological evidence should be able to shed light on ambiguous scientific outcomes and to show that some theories make more sense than others. Intersubjective data can help interpret objective data and vice versa.

Some will argue that formulating a more detailed methodology for phenomenology that is partially based on scientific method is misplaced because phenomenology is a philosophical movement, whereas science is a separate discipline from philosophy altogether. Actually science used to be a philosophical movement as well, at least as far back as ancient Greece up until the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th Centuries. It then became its own distinct discipline because it attained a more highly developed methodology and became more reliable.

It turns out that the only real difference between the two is that science is the system of methods for objective study whereas phenomenology is the system of methods for intersubjective study. Both science and phenomenology are types of epistemes, which means that they are ways of coming to know things. Other examples of epistemes include mathematics, philosophy, and common sense. Both science and phenomenology are a posteriori epistemes (given the assumption of radical empiricism), while mathematics is an a priori episteme. Philosophy and common sense might fall somewhere in between because they can both in certain circumstances be dependent on specific experiences. Common sense can be thought of as a very simple form of philosophy that we all do by our very nature and which we don't put much mental energy into. It is probably the case that all interesting philosophical ideas that multiple people can understand that are not based on any specific experiences and are therefore a priori. Of course the very basis for phenomenology, as with the basis for science, is philosophical and a priori. But the actual practice of phenomenology is similar to the actual practice of science in that they are both a posteriori.

Overall, phenomenology is a good idea and there should be a way of getting it to work so that it can lead to significant progress in the ongoing effort to understand reality. There was a time, centuries ago, when the practice of science was not leading to much progress towards this end. Science was revolutionized with the advent of the scientific method and this brought about what we now know as modern science. Phenomenology can be revolutionized as well. Science alone does not seem to be able to apply to all aspects of reality. What is sorely needed is a more detailed methodology for intersubjective study. This can be the foundation of modern phenomenology. In my next posting on this subject, I will lay out my proposed methodology for modern phenomenology.


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