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In psychology, phenomenology is used to refer to subjective experiences or their study. The experiencing subject can be considered to be the person or self, for purposes of convenience. In phenomenological philosophy (and particularly in the work of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) 'experience' is a considerably more complex concept than it is usually taken to be in everyday use. Instead, experience (or Being, or existence itself) is an 'in-relation-to' phenomena, and it is defined by qualities of directedness, embodiment and worldliness which are evoked by the term 'Being-in-the-World' [1].

Nevertheless, one abiding feature of 'experiences' is that, in principle, they are not directly observable by any external observer. The quality or nature of a given experience is often referred to by the term qualia, whose archetypical exemplar is "redness". For example, we might ask, "Is my experience of redness the same as yours?" While it is difficult to answer such a question in any concrete way, the concept of intersubjectivity [2] is often used as a mechanism for understanding how it is that humans are able to empathise with one another's experiences, and indeed to engage in meaningful communication about them. The phenomenological formulation of Being-in-the-World, where person and world are mutually constitutive, is central here.

Phenomenological psychology

{{Main|Phenomenology (psychology)]] The concepts of phenomenological philosophy have influenced at least two main fields of contemporary psychology: the qualitative psychology of Giorgi, Smith Interpretative_Phenomenological_Analysis, Kvale, and others; and the experimental approaches associated with Varela, Gallagher, Thompson, and others Embodied_cognition.

Difficulties in considering subjective phenomena

The philosophical psychology prevalent before the end of the nineteenth century relied heavily on introspection. The speculations concerning the mind based on those observations were criticized by the pioneering advocates of a more scientific approach to psychology, such as William James and the behaviorists Edward Thorndike, Clark Hull, John B. Watson, and B. F. Skinner. However, introspection is not intrinsically problematic, as Francisco Varela's attempts to train experimental participants in the structured 'introspection' of phenomenological reduction have demonstrated[2] .

Philosophers have long confronted the problem of "qualia". Few philosophers believe that it is possible to be sure that one person's experience of the "redness" of an object is the same as another person's, even if both persons had effectively identical genetic and experiential histories[How to reference and link to summary or text]. In principle, the same difficulty arises in feelings (the subjective experience of emotion), in the experience of effort, and especially in the "meaning" of concepts[How to reference and link to summary or text]. As a result, many qualitative psychologists have claimed phenomenological inquiry to be essentially a matter of 'meaning-making' and thus a question to be addressed by interpretive approaches[3].

Psychotherapy and the phenomenology of emotion

Carl Rogers' person-centered psychotherapy theory is based directly on the "phenomenal field" personality theory of Combs and Snygg (1949)[4]. That theory in turn was grounded in phenomenological thinking[5]. Rogers attempts to put a therapist in closer contact with a person by listening to the person's report of their recent subjective experiences, especially emotions of which the person is not fully aware. For example, in relationships the problem at hand is often not based around what actually happened, but instead is based around the perceptions and feelings of each individual in the relationship. The phenomenal field focuses on "how one feels right now".

Dennett's Heterophenomenology

Daniel Dennett has developed a phenomenological philosophical approach which he calls heterophenomenology. It provides a philosophical basis for a scientific psychology of subjective experience[6].

Other approaches

The psychotherapeutic and scientific approaches to the phenomenology of subjective conscious experience do not seem to exhaust the possibilities. In some realms of psychotherapy and self-help different phenomenological approaches continue.[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Notable thesis of Dr Ron Haki on the phenomenology of personal traumas represents both a model phenomenological investigation and valuable clinical insights and discoveries in the growing field of early trauma and prevention.


  1. Langdridge, D. (2006). Phenomenological psychology: theory, research and method. Harlow: Pearson.
  2. Varela, F.J. (1996). Neurophenomenology: a methodological remedy to the hard problem. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3330-350.
  3. Langdridge, D. (2006). Phenomenological psychology: theory, research and method. Harlow: Pearson.
  4. Rogers, Carl R. (1951) Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  5. [1] Boeree, C. George, Donald Snygg and Arthur Combs in Personality Theory retrieved Oct. 7, 2007
  6. Dennett, Daniel C., Consciousness Explained. Boston, Little, Brown & Co., chs. 3 & 4

See also


  • Combs, Arthur W. and Snygg, Donald (1949), Individual Behavior: A New Frame of Reference for Psychology. New York, Harper & Brothers.

Further reading

External links

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