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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 9.1 (2002) 93-96

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Phenomenological Methods in Psychiatry:
A Necessary First Step

M. Gupta and L. Rex Kay

Keywords: behavior, empathy, human science, methodology, natural science, phenomenology.


WE ARE GRATEFUL to the journal for prviding the opportunity for exchange and discussion of some of the themes raised in our paper, "The impact of phenomenology on North American psychiatric assessment" and we are pleased to be able to reply to the two excellent commentaries by McMillan and Morley. Both McMillan and Morley question the prospect of employing phenomenology and its methods in psychiatric assessment, and in psychiatric practice more generally. McMillan questions the utility of such a step, and Morley is pessimistic about its feasibility. We shall address each author's concerns in turn.

Initially, let us restate the aims of our paper to contextualize our arguments and those made in the commentaries. First, we sought an understanding of what is meant by North American psychiatrists, working within the DSM framework, when they refer to the phenomenological approach to psychiatric assessment. To elucidate this meaning, we compared the contemporary North American usage to a small number of definitions of phenomenology, particularly those definitions that were, and are now, applied to clinical psychiatric work. Contrary to McMillan's suggestion, we did not intend to state definitively what should or should not count as phenomenological, but rather to compare North American psychiatric assessment to what typically has counted as phenomenological. Second, we sought to examine phenomenology's influence on North American psychiatric practice, particularly psychotherapy.Morley argues that such influences usually exemplify the inappropriate appending of phenomenology to psychiatric practice rather than true integration of different paradigms. Although we do not disagree with this general contention, we will argue that the deployment of phenomenological methods in psychiatric assessment is a necessary first step toward the kind of integration he proposes.

McMillan makes two related but unintegrated points. First, he argues that objective, behavioral data are phenomenological, according to his broad definition of the term. Second, he proposes that, if the behavioral and the phenomenological are different, we are better off staying with the behavioral when it comes to psychiatric nosology. Let us consider these two points in succession.

McMillan seeks to broaden Jasper's definition of phenomenology to include objective observations [End Page 93] as phenomenological. To this end, he distinguishes methods from aims. He summarizes Jasper's definition of phenomenology as "an empirical method for investigating 'individual psychic experience (p 55)" and claims that this is a statement of aim or objectives. He then urges us to "consider the merits of different phenomenological methodologies in terms of their success in achieving this objective" whether or not they utilize "all the methods" of phenomenology. This is much like saying that if we treat waving one's hand as a method for greeting someone, we are then free to treat the objective of the wave as one of greeting someone, and then say that anything that serves as a greeting is, by definition, a "wave." Whatever else McMillan's objective observations are, he has not convinced us that they are phenomenological, anymore than we are likely to convince you that a kiss on the lips is really just a wave.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile seeing what McMillan does with this argument. He tells us that we can "read the first-person experience from behavior in a fairly accurate and informative way." He uses the example of a father gazing at his young child and notes that it is not unreasonable to infer that he is experiencing loving and nurturing feelings. It is, indeed, not unreasonable to draw such an inference. But it is far more reasonable to infer that the father is experiencing a cacophony of feelings, including, but not limited to, love, concern, anxiety, pride, envy, hope, and sadness (Stern 1995, 18-58). If we are able to distinguish which of these feelings is dominant at any given moment—which we are—and if we are also able to track subtle shifts in such feelings...


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