- The How and Why of Phenomenology
In his paper, Fredrik Svenaeus develops a method for investigating alexithymia through the integrated, non-causal approach offered by phenomenology. Alexithymia is traditionally characterized as a lack of feelings, the consequences of which may include problems such as the neglect of one’s own body, drug abuse, anorexia, and psychosomatic illnesses. The initial sections of Svenaeus’s paper provide an extremely clear description of alexithymia and illustrate just why phenomenological research could contribute to our understanding of this condition. Particularly insightful are the sections describing the core and secondary symptoms of alexithymia, and those detailing the two main research paradigms previously used to investigate and explain alexithymia—neurophysiology and psychoanalysis.
Like Svenaeus, I emphasize the word explain because the notion of explanation is central to theories like neurophysiology and psychoanalysis, which are underpinned by a rationale of cause and effect. It is the need to move away from such cause-effect theories that serves as the main point of departure for Svenaeus’s paper, as it is for most projects that involve applying phenomenology to a practical context (e.g., politics, ethics, health/illness). In the “Phenomenology and Alexithymia” section of Svenaeus’s paper, he emphasizes the need for a method of research that accounts for the individual’s own experience of how the condition is actually meaningful for him or her. What is required, then, and what phenomenology promises, is a first-person perspective of the way in which alexithymia impinges upon the day-to-day being of the person concerned (the “how” of alexithymia) as opposed to a third-person, uniform account that explains the causes of the condition (the “why” of alexithymia). 1
In this commentary I want to consider how far Svenaeus has achieved this objective of a first-person, experiential account of alexithymia. I will argue that although he points out the methodological weaknesses of previous research into the causes (“why”) of alexithymia, and has started to elaborate the potential of an alternative phenomenological approach into the “how” of the condition, he leaves too many questions hanging in the air, such as why Heidegger’s brand of phenomenology should be applied to a condition like alexithymia, and just how such a phenomenology can be applied. I will consider two issues in relation to the first of these questions, and two in relation to the second. In relation to the first question, I will consider particularly: 1) The difficulty of diagnosing alexithymia, owing to its similarity with the everyday problem of not being able to express one’s feelings competently, and phenomenology’s suitability for drawing out the qualitative rather than quantitative differences between the two; and, 2) Whether alexithymia is actually a problem of expressing and/or experiencing feelings, and the way in which Heidegger’s phenomenology answers this question in different terms [End Page 87] altogether, i.e., as a problem of understanding. In relation to the second question—how Heidegger’s phenomenology can be applied—I will consider: 3) The role of Heidegger’s notions “attunement” and “moods” in Svenaeus’s paper, and exactly what relationship they have with the more psychologistic term feelings; and finally, 4) Whether Svenaeus has provided us with an account of alexithymia that falls back into an explanatory approach rather than a first-person perspective and ways in which he could further a more experiential-based phenomenology that concentrates on the alexithymic’s own meaning-making practices.
Qualitative and Quantitative Differences in Alexithymia
First, then, I will explore the quantitative and qualitative differences of alexithymia, and how phenomenology could have a bearing on the diagnosis of alexithymia. Svenaeus emphasizes the value of phenomenology as a powerful tool for disclosing the way in which certain aspects of what Heidegger calls our “understanding,” specifically attunement, language, and the body, are critical to how we find the world meaningful. The main use Svenaeus makes of Heidegger’s phenomenology is to articulate the radically different way in which the world is meaningful for the alexithymic.
However, he does not draw out the way in which phenomenology could be helpful in diagnosing alexithymia. One response, only implicit in Svenaeus’s paper, is that...