Non-Introspective Cognitive Science Methods and Misappropriation of “-phenomenology”

 In History of Phenomenology

In recent weeks, I’ve been posting a lot about phenomenology, including what it is essentially and the different branches.  It is also worth addressing the so-called practice of “hetero-phenomenology”.  This term was coined by Daniel Dennett, who defined it as phenomenology of someone other than oneself.  Dennett describes this discipline as involving the observation of others and listening to what they have to say with the goal of trying to understand what they experience and believe.  Introspection is seen as inherently unreliable, so only objectively observable data is admitted to any research projects using this method.  In this, he is essentially describing a form of cognitive science.  The utility of this is indisputable, since we can learn a lot about human behavior by observing, recording, and measuring how people behave and what they say.  However, it is disputable whether he is misappropriating the term “phenomenology” to apply to something that is quite unrelated to any of the major branches of mature phenomenology.

Dennett defines “hetero-phenomenology” in a way that clearly gives primacy to objective scientific methods and that discounts all intersubjective theories that are not in line with the presuppositions of naturalistic science.  Within his method, all subjective experiences are interpreted in terms of what is known from objective data.  Also, quite notably, the practitioner makes an assumption wherein it is believed to be impossible for one to form knowledge from subjective experience that can help interpret objectively based scientific theories.  The problem with this approach is that any information gathered from introspection is considered by Dennett to be unreliable and that there is no way within his method for introspective findings to be incorporated into any theory.  Dennett dismisses all forms of introspection, even those that would be carefully practiced, as hopelessly arbitrary and he doesn’t think we should trust any descriptions of one’s inner world that would be produced through introspection.  It’s not just that objective scientific findings are always trusted more, it is that introspective findings are never trusted at all.  At least, this is what he tries to argue the researchers and theorists of this method should do.

For this reason, what Dennett describes is not really any form of phenomenology, nor anything worthy of any derived term, but it is instead nothing more or less than a form of purely objective cognitive science and thus Dennett’s term is misleading.  There is obviously nothing wrong with purely objective science (although it does have limitations), but Dennett shouldn’t masquerade his cognitive science as a form of phenomenology when it lacks the elements that should be present in any appropriate use of this term.

Dennett also made up the term “auto-phenomenology” to refer to anything that meets the more generally accepted definition of phenomenology.  The prefix “auto” is redundant when applied to phenomenology, based on the generally accepted definition, and therefore there is no reason to use this term that Dennett invented.

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