"Naturalizing Phenomenology": Is this the way to proceed?

by Yuko Ishihara

Date: November 10-11, 2017

Place: Hunter College (first day) and WeWork Park South (second day)

Organizer: Yuko Ishihara (Tokyo Institute of Technology / Institute for Advanced Study / YHouse)

How can phenomenology contribute to the study of consciousness today? This is the underlying question of the YHouse Phenomenology Group, a group of philosophers and scientists interested in exploring the potentials of phenomenology. Here “phenomenology” designates the philosophical enterprise initiated by Edmund Husserl in the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Husserl and many other phenomenologists, phenomenology is a scientific discipline which studies the nature of consciousness. If this is true, then how does it differ from other scientific studies of consciousness such as psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience? Furthermore, if phenomenology is to collaborate with the other sciences, how should we understand the nature of this collaboration?

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On November 10-11 2017, YHouse organized a small workshop where these and other related questions surrounding the alleged scientific status of phenomenology were addressed. The focus of the workshop was on the idea of “naturalizing phenomenology,” one of the more popular approaches attempting to bring phenomenology in direct contact with the natural sciences. By examining some of the important papers on this topic*, the aim was to get a clearer view on what “naturalizing phenomenology” means and what it does and does not entail. Below is a summary of some of the important points that emerged from the discussion.

Consciousness is primarily a subject for the world

Part of Husserl’s motivation to advance phenomenology as a new discipline came from the need to establish a study of consciousness that does justice to what is truly unique about the nature of consciousness. According to Husserl, consciousness is not just another object in the world. More importantly, it is also a subject for the world. On the one hand, consciousness can be taken to be an object on a par with other objects. Psychologists, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists study consciousness as it appears from this perspective.

On the other hand, there is an important sense in which consciousness is different from any other object: it is the necessary condition of possibility for there to be any object for us in the first place. Without this aspect of consciousness, namely as a subject for which objects are taken as objects, no object could appear in the way it does. This is what makes consciousness a truly unique subject matter. Husserl wanted to establish phenomenology as the specific discipline that takes this point seriously and studies consciousness as primarily a subject for the world. In Husserl’s eyes, this is what distinguishes phenomenology from the natural scientific studies of consciousness.

The irreducibility of phenomenology to the natural sciences

Accordingly, if naturalizing phenomenology amounts to making phenomenology a part of natural science, such an attempt obviously misunderstands what is unique about phenomenology. What is really at work behind such attempts is “naturalistic reductionism", i.e. the idea that everything is explainable in natural scientific terms. Such picture reduces everything to the realm of natural objects and neglects the important aspect of consciousness without which we cannot even conceive of objects. Once we see the importance of studying consciousness in its own right, we need to maintain the irreducibility of phenomenology to the natural sciences.

But saying that phenomenology is irreducible to the natural sciences doesn’t mean they are irreconcilable. Although phenomenology studies consciousness in a very different manner to, say, psychology and neuroscience, they are nonetheless all studying one and the same subject matter: consciousness. Indeed a comprehensive account of consciousness should take into account both aspects of consciousness - as an object in the world and as a subject for the world. The challenge is: how can we reconcile phenomenology and the natural sciences while maintaining their irreducibility?

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Two phenomenological approaches: Psychological vs. Philosophical

One way is by maintaining a notion of phenomenology that makes it continuous with the natural sciences. Shaun Gallagher subscribes to this continuity thesis and works with what he calls a “broader conception of phenomenology.” According to this conception, phenomenology is concerned with providing first-person descriptions of our various ways of apprehending reality, e.g. perception, imagination, social cognition. Since the subject matter here is essentially the human mind, this kind of phenomenology is called “phenomenological psychology.” If we work with this notion of phenomenology, then there is no reason why it cannot cooperate with the natural sciences which give third-person accounts of our experiences. Careful phenomenological descriptions can help empirical scientists refine the explanandum under consideration while empirical findings can in turn help refine and revise the phenomenological insights. Gallagher calls this kind of constructive exchange, "mutual enlightenment."

What distinguishes phenomenological psychology from, say, empirical psychology is its aim and method. The aim of phenomenological psychology is not to explain the sub-personal causal mechanisms but to describe phenomena in their first-person givenness. The method is also different from the inductive method in empirical psychology. Phenomenological psychologists vary the structures of the phenomenon under consideration in order to seek its invariant structures. Whereas empirical psychologists are interested in facts, phenomenological psychologists are interested in “essences,” i.e. the invariant structure of our experiences gained through imaginative variation. Much of the workshop focused on understanding this particular phenomenological approach.

But while this is undoubtedly a valid phenomenological approach, Husserl did not intend phenomenology to be merely a specific approach within psychology. Phenomenology, in Husserl’s eyes, has a proper philosophical motive to clarify the role of consciousness as the necessary condition of possibility for all our experience of reality. The crucial question here is how it is possible for there to be anything like an object at all. The kind of phenomenology that addresses this question is called "transcendental phenomenology” or “philosophical phenomenology.” Both the phenomenological psychologist and the transcendental phenomenologist are interested in studying consciousness in its own right. And the transcendental phenomenologist also has the aim to provide first-person eidetic descriptions of the phenomena. But whereas the phenomenological psychologist need not be interested in the philosophical question regarding the fundamental role consciousness has in our experience of reality, for the transcendental phenomenologist, this is the most important question.

So how can this notion of phenomenology, namely transcendental phenomenology, work with the natural sciences? Not all phenomenologists are ready to give a positive answer to this question. When Shaun Gallagher, for example, talks about the mutual enlightenment between phenomenology and the empirical sciences, he almost exclusively has in mind phenomenological psychology. While he would agree that transcendental questions are important philosophical questions, they don’t necessarily interest natural scientists. And that’s okay. We can simply put aside the transcendental part of phenomenology and focus instead on how the phenomenological approach in psychology can be a complementary approach to other empirical approaches.

But is it then true that transcendental phenomenology has no or little relevance for the natural sciences? Some people (including myself) would say that the true phenomenological insight lies in the transcendental dimension, namely the idea that consciousness is the necessary condition of possibility for reality as it is given to us. In fact, if one follows this idea carefully, one is led to question the meaning of "nature" as well as the classical dichotomies such as subjectivity and objectivity, empirical and transcendental. Dan Zahavi proposes that an alternative way in which phenomenology can collaborate with the empirical sciences is by fully engaging with the philosophical side of phenomenology, i.e. by going transcendental.

In this context, it is interesting to reiterate an episode that Zahavi recalls in his article. In a reply to a question posed by him to Francisco Varela back in 2000, Varela apparently claimed that Naturalizing Phenomenology was only intended as the first part of a larger project and that the second part was planned to be titled, Phenomenologizing Natural Science. If one is willing to take the philosophical side of phenomenology seriously,  as Varela seems to have been, then both the phenomenologists and the scientists would have to reconsider their understandings of nature and consciousness, which may - as Zahavi intimates -  even lead to a transformation of natural science as we know it. This is obviously a huge project that we may or may not be willing to engage in. But at the very least we should bear in mind that possible dialogues with phenomenology isn’t constrained to the realm of psychology but extends to the natural sciences in general in so far as the concept of nature is at issue.

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*The three papers that we discussed in the workshop are:

  1. Shaun Gallagher (2012), “On the Possibility of Naturalizing Phenomenology”, in Dan Zahavi (ed.), Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 70-93.

  2. Dan Zahavi (2013), “Naturalized Phenomenology: A Desideratum or a Category Mistake?”, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement, Vol. 72 (Phenomenology and Naturalism), pp. 23-42.

  3. van Thompson, Alva Noë, Luiz Pessoa (1999), “Perceptual Completion: A Case Study in Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences”, in Jean Petitot, Francisco J. Varela, Bernard Pachoud, Jean-Michel Roy (eds.), Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press), pp. 161-195.