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  • Phenomenology Is Not a Servant of Science
  • Matthew Ratcliffe (bio)

empathy, naturalism, phenomenology, science

According to Louis Sass, Josef Parnas, and Dan Zahavi (2011), the account of current developments in "phenomenological clinical neuroscience" offered by Aaron Mishara (2007) is "not only confusing but highly inaccurate." Their critique is harsh, but I can find nothing to disagree with. Mishara's distinction between "neo-phenomenology" and "existential phenomenology" does not apply to current work in the field; I do not recognize the two camps he describes. Neither do I find it helpful to distinguish two separate historical traditions in phenomenological psychiatry. As for allegedly conflicting phenomenological claims, Sass, Parnas, and Zahavi rightly point out that an emphasis on involuntary hyperreflexivity is quite compatible with the view that the breakdown of Husserlian passive synthesis plays a central role.

There is also a more general point to be made here. If phenomenology were to consist of a cluster of conflicting approaches, each making different claims about the structure of experience, and if there were no principled method of arbitrating between these approaches and claims, there would be no grounds for trusting any of them. Hence, it is important not to impose boundaries and disagreements where none exist or to exaggerate differences, because doing so risks unfairly discrediting phenomenological findings. Of course, if one is concerned primarily with scholarship, it is important to describe and debate the differences and disagreements between thinkers and traditions. But things are different when the aim is to do phenomenology, in the context of psychiatry and elsewhere. Rather than pitting various phenomenological thinkers, methods, and claims against each other, it is possible to adopt an approach that draws insights from a range of sources, the ultimate goal being a cohesive view that brings together the best of what they have to offer (see, for example, Sass 1992). Much of what various phenomenologists say is compatible; one can let the insights of many different philosophers inform and inspire one's own phenomenological reflections, without being unavoidably drawn into contradiction (Ratcliffe 2008). We can think with them, through them, rather than identifying with one tradition in contrast to another or following one or more phenomenologists.

It is also important to emphasize that the role of phenomenology in psychiatry is not exhausted by whatever contribution it might make to empirical scientific research. Mishara either suggests otherwise or, at least, fails to make this clear. Even the "existential-phenomenological approach," he tells us, "adheres to the view that phenomenology [End Page 33] provides initial systematic means for studying the subjective experience of the symptoms of schizophrenia and probing their underlying neurobiology" (Mishara 2007, 560). However, I think there is an important sense in which phenomenological psychiatry is non-naturalistic: it incorporates a distinctive form of interpersonal understanding, which requires the methodological suspension of assumptions that empirical scientific thinking presupposes. Sass, Parnas, and Zahavi endorse the general view that phenomenology, in the context of psychiatry, is not a mere servant of science. And what I say here is intended to supplement rather than criticize their discussion. However, I am not sure whether or to what extent they would endorse the more specific anti-naturalist position that I briefly sketch in what follows.

Ordinarily, when I understand and interact with other people, I do not completely distinguish my own experience of the world from theirs. The contrast between what I experience and what they experience continues to presuppose a world that is ours, a world that is not completely divided into what is 'mine' and what is 'theirs.' For example, a common appreciation of norms, roles, and functions is ordinarily taken for granted—we can both see that something is a bus, that a police officer is approaching, or that a sign says 'turn left.' I do not usually have to attribute this kind of social understanding to a person who I am interpreting. Rather, I assume from the outset that our world, the realm in which we are both situated and in which we both have our different experiences, incorporates these things. Of course, we do not always take each other to have exactly the same understanding of the social world. Even so, it...


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