Ideas on the Nomothetic vs. Idiographic Distinction

I want to share some ideas on the nomothetic vs. idiographic distinction.  The term “nomothetic” refers to research about general principles or generalizations across a population of individuals.  This is based on a tendency to generalize, and is typical for the natural sciences.  In general, this describes the effort to derive laws that explain types or categories of objective phenomena.  In contrast, the term “ideographic” describes the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, unique, and often cultural or subjective phenomena.  It is based on a tendency to specify, and is typical for the humanities.  This distinction should not be seen as absolute and binary.  Instead, some epistemes can involve the interplay between these two.  The description of particular streams of consciousness and symbolic interpretation of stories can sometimes be relatable for other people and this can lead to a certain mutual understanding.  In some cases, these might be so particular to the author’s personal experience that there simply isn’t any way for anyone else to relate.

A major influence for me and one of the greatest minds of our time, Gregg Henriques, has said that ideographic aspects of reality are not amenable to scientific study, since, he figures, quantification and reproducibility are just not possible.

With regard to science and ideographic knowledge, I would say it depends on how those terms are defined.  If we take a generalized definition of science, it can apply to the shared or relatable aspects of conscious experience that have correlates to objective behavior patterns.  This is how we can relate to each other and get a good sense of the inner world of the people we interact with.  There is always ideographic uniqueness, but if there are patterns that can be studied within groups then I think we can have reliable ways of building knowledge based on reproducible evidence.  Now, all sciences need to be anchored into reproducible evidence, but it is also scientific if the interpretation of the data extends into phenomena that are not reproducible.  This is why evolutionary biology and astronomy are sciences.  Those involve phenomena that are not reproducible in themselves but stand in this clear relation to things that are (we can reproduce tests on fossils and movements of stars in the sky, for example).  I figure any ideographic knowledge has to have some elements that are universal to the inner experience of consciousness, and we can reproduce our mindfulness of those phenomena and also the correlations to patterns of behavior for ourselves an for others.  Thus some ideographic knowledge can stand in relation to reproducible evidence and thus it can be somewhat scientific.

There are phenomenological experiments one can do, some of which take the form of “do this with process or procedure X your mind and you’ll get Y result”.  There are mindfulness practices that can allow people to more accurately assess their own consciousness.  If enough people agree on the results, then these can be considered to have consensus evidential support.  The findings can then be used, in conjunction with psychology and sociology, to help interpret the common threads of ideographic data.  What I’m describing here is only the paradigm and the methodology that we’re working on refining.  I think what you’re describing could be considered within a similar vein.  What might make something scientific is if it is driven by evidence (usually objective but perhaps also intersubjective) and there is some sort of methodology to drive it and the conclusions ultimately succeed or fail on the basis of reproducible experiments.  If what I’m describing is not scientific, then at least is it adjacent to science and we’d need a new word to describe it, since it is not merely speculative, there are not infinite ways that the data could be interpreted, and it does succeed or fail based on reproducible tests.

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Non-Introspective Cognitive Science Methods and Misappropriation of “-phenomenology”

In recent weeks, I’ve been posting a lot about phenomenology, including what it is essentially and the different branches.  It is also worth addressing the so-called practice of “hetero-phenomenology”.  This term was coined by Daniel Dennett, who defined it as phenomenology of someone other than oneself.  Dennett describes this discipline as involving the observation of others and listening to what they have to say with the goal of trying to understand what they experience and believe.  Introspection is seen as inherently unreliable, so only objectively observable data is admitted to any research projects using this method.  In this, he is essentially describing a form of cognitive science.  The utility of this is indisputable, since we can learn a lot about human behavior by observing, recording, and measuring how people behave and what they say.  However, it is disputable whether he is misappropriating the term “phenomenology” to apply to something that is quite unrelated to any of the major branches of mature phenomenology.

Dennett defines “hetero-phenomenology” in a way that clearly gives primacy to objective scientific methods and that discounts all intersubjective theories that are not in line with the presuppositions of naturalistic science.  Within his method, all subjective experiences are interpreted in terms of what is known from objective data.  Also, quite notably, the practitioner makes an assumption wherein it is believed to be impossible for one to form knowledge from subjective experience that can help interpret objectively based scientific theories.  The problem with this approach is that any information gathered from introspection is considered by Dennett to be unreliable and that there is no way within his method for introspective findings to be incorporated into any theory.  Dennett dismisses all forms of introspection, even those that would be carefully practiced, as hopelessly arbitrary and he doesn’t think we should trust any descriptions of one’s inner world that would be produced through introspection.  It’s not just that objective scientific findings are always trusted more, it is that introspective findings are never trusted at all.  At least, this is what he tries to argue the researchers and theorists of this method should do.

For this reason, what Dennett describes is not really any form of phenomenology, nor anything worthy of any derived term, but it is instead nothing more or less than a form of purely objective cognitive science and thus Dennett’s term is misleading.  There is obviously nothing wrong with purely objective science (although it does have limitations), but Dennett shouldn’t masquerade his cognitive science as a form of phenomenology when it lacks the elements that should be present in any appropriate use of this term.

Dennett also made up the term “auto-phenomenology” to refer to anything that meets the more generally accepted definition of phenomenology.  The prefix “auto” is redundant when applied to phenomenology, based on the generally accepted definition, and therefore there is no reason to use this term that Dennett invented.

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What is Hermeneutic Phenomenology?

This post is the second in a series on the main branches of mature phenomenology.  You might want to start with the prior posts about transcendental phenomenology and existential phenomenology if you have not already done so.

The third major branch of mature phenomenology uses hermeneutic methods to gain deep insights into the meaning of language, acts of communication, and the inner world of thinking and feeling beings.  Martin Heidegger also initiated this branch of phenomenology, and although there are similarities and overlap with the existential branch, this approach can be seen as distinct from that one.  There are strong connections to the work of Dilthey and other hermeneuts who both sought to interpret people’s written words and speech so as to understand what they were thinking and feeling.  When this is brought together with phenomenology, it is focused on what various acts of communication can tell us about what is common to lived experience in general.  Hermeneutic phenomenology seeks to discern the meaning of speech acts, texts, gestures, and lived expressions and all that might unite and tie together the experience of living with one another in a common world.

Interpretation of human society and culture is complex, with so many variables that are interacting with each other in ways that it is very difficult to sort out, but the idea is that one can find ways of focusing on one aspect at a time and studying its own unique nature.  Indeed, there are numerous people involved in any social situation interacting with each other in complex ways and they each have their own thoughts, feelings, and motives, which are extremely difficult to discern, but we can carefully try to assess each subculture and in some cases each person and each motivating factor separately.  This can involve considering the historical development of ideology and cultural beliefs and practices over the generations by carefully looking at history and the various time periods and what the people within each generation had and didn’t have at their disposal and what they believed and didn’t believe and what they were dealing with in their own lives and the problems they were trying to address in their lives.  This project is extremely difficult, but the main thinkers who formulated this branch of phenomenology would argue that progress can be made on this front.  We have access to troves of artifacts from the distant and recent past, so it should not be entirely impossible to understand the most significant patterns of thought and motivation that guided the development of human society and that are at work in our contemporary world and are driving us into the future.

Heidegger saw how the usage of language is important to how problems are framed and how solutions are formulated, and this is what inspired him to focus on hermeneutics in his work.  He argued that phenomenology could be used to address the central questions of metaphysics which had been misconceived and taken for granted throughout the history of philosophy.  He thought that philosophers had been fundamentally misled by language going all the way back to the work of Plato and he figured that the pre-Socratic philosophers had more open-minded ways of thinking about the nature of being and the relation to time.  He figured that generation after generation since then up to his time in the Twentieth Century, most philosophers had taken for granted the traditional notions of how being relates to time and they had not thought much about it.  He sought to use hermeneutics to open people’s minds.

Several notable thinkers continued the development of hermeneutic phenomenology after Heidegger, including Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.  Gadamer’s phenomenological hermeneutics is based on self-understanding as a means of understanding others.  Gadamer stressed the historical and linguistic nature of our understanding.  Whenever we understand something, be it a text, machine, or gesture, we understand ourselves as well.  Gadamer believed that hermeneutics is universal to human understanding and interaction with the world.  He realized one could gain insight through the communicative power of works of art and culture and he saw that our encounters with arts and literature give us insights into the human condition.  He didn’t think that any methodology could capture how the process of mutual understanding is constructed and refined, but he felt that people could utilize a variety of communicative tactics so as to achieve a “fusion of horizons” between their inner worlds.

Ricoeur sought to be more methodical than Gadamer.  He theorized and practiced a vast arc of narrative structural analysis that incorporated empathy, trust, suspicion, and distrust as overarching sentiments driving prior thinkers, since each of these are interwoven with human experience.  Ricoeur argued that hermeneutics is built on the basis of phenomenology, but he also argues that phenomenology is incapable of constituting itself without a hermeneutical presupposition.  Also Ricoeur said that our social life inevitably involves some combination of empathy and suspicion, which are opposites that interplay with each other to produce a gradually more explanatory model of the motives and ideologies of people and the cultures and subcultures that they are associated with.  Both empathy and suspicion are essential to a true understanding.  Overall, we are trying to understand the present by interpreting the past and vice versa.

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What is Existential Phenomenology?

This post is the second in a series on the main branches of mature phenomenology.  You might want to start with the prior post about transcendental phenomenology if you have not already done so.

Husserl formulated the basic outline of the phenomenological method and also his own more specific methodology for this, which became the basis for the transcendental branch that was described in the previous section.  There were some thinkers who were inspired by the basic outline of this new discipline, but who nonetheless rejected some of the precepts that would be applied to the transcendental branch in particular but that didn’t necessarily apply to phenomenology in general.

Martin Heidegger, the most famous of Husserl’s students, conceived a different way of going about phenomenology that is focused on the exploration of the nature and meaning of existence.  In addition to prior phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger drew from several sources including existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche.  Heidegger felt that Husserl’s transcendental approach was too theoretical, abstract, and insufficiently concerned with concrete human existence and the situations that we find ourselves living through.  Heidegger’s works detail his stream of consciousness as he went about trying to understand the fundamental question of the nature and reality of being.

Heidegger’s existential phenomenology has several notable differences from transcendental phenomenology.  Unlike Husserl, Heidegger did not see the need or the possibility of bracketing or epoche and he rejected the idea that one could suspend all preconceived notions.  Heidegger also resisted the idea that phenomenology could be a rigorous science.  As Dermot Moran wrote: “For Heidegger, phenomenology is the attempt to make manifest the matters as they manifest themselves.  As a radical allegiance to the things themselves, phenomenology can never be a single method”.

Whereas Husserl emphasized introspection as a way of understanding things in themselves, Heidegger instead preferred circumspection, which is the careful observation of one’s surroundings while going about daily life, mundane as it often is, and dealing with the occasional unexpected events that occur.  He argued that circumspection involves understanding which way one is oriented and understanding the most basic aspects of existence.  For Heidegger, experience is continuous and flowing and needs to be understood as a whole in the process of doing rather than through stepping back and thinking.

This process usually begins with when one is dealing with problems that arise in mundane, normal life.  One does not then withdraw and meditate and actively seek mindfulness as they would in the transcendental method.  Instead, a deeper meaning of existence is sought through active engagement with the world and through circumspection, wherein one might come to understand the relation between one’s self and the world, including how their body is related to the world and is an integral part of the world.  The inner tensions and angst can then be put into perspective, which can allow one to cope with the world into which they have been thrown.

Heidegger put these tools to use in his critique of modern philosophy, which focused primarily on the idea, articulated by Descartes and assumed by many others both before and after him, that humans are fundamentally rational beings.  He saw that the basic fundamental sense of human existence is pre-rational, pre-scientific.  It involves complex interconnections of lived experience that are not normally reflected upon nor analyzed, but that flow through our live constantly.

In his existential phenomenology, his focus was on what he called “Dasein”, which contained all of the aspects of self-reflective conscious experience that he thought were essential to this sort of being.  This can perhaps be understood as self-reflective first person experience, including the emotions felt while interacting with commonplace situations and including the occasional considerations for the meaning or purpose of one’s existence in the face of angst and anxiety, and also of concern or interest in one’s experience of their world, the totality of their known world, and the so-called authentic way of living.  He saw an inherent connection between care and authenticity.  We tend engage in activities and think about things that we care about, and doing so is authentic living.  Doing contrary to this is bad faith.

He sought to understand the concept of being and how it relates to time.  Prior to Heidegger, nearly all philosophers in the Western tradition had assumed that objects exist at instances in time and that as time moves forward these objects can either change or stay the same.  Heidegger argued that this preconception regarding the concept of being is mistaken and he used his version of phenomenology to argue that being cannot be separated from time.  It is not that an object exists at different instances in time, Husserl argued, but that the passing of time is an essential component of being.  An analogy he used is that it is not a hammer that constitutes being but hammering.  He used this conception of being to further address the nature of human existence.

Heidegger’s existential phenomenology influenced many thinkers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Hannah Arendt, who were influential in their own right.  Sartre focused on the concept of being in contrast with nothingness and contingency and what this means for human existence.  Sartre was concerned with real human situations and how the experience of emotions such as angst, nausea, and anxiety relate to human freedom.  Merleau-Ponty is notable for mixing existential and transcendental phenomenology, along with the psychological science of his time.  He used these tools in his analysis of perception and behavior from a first-person point of view, so as to understand the nature of embodied existence. He saw that the mind is thoroughly entangled with the body, conception with perception, and thought with feeling.  Merleau-Ponty used his embodied phenomenology, which can be seen as a variant of the existential branch, analyze the connection between perception and habitual behavior.  These insights have been used by therapists to help patients identify cause of the internal conflicts that might be happening within their body and/or in the relation between their body and the outside world.  Arendt studied and analyzed the phenomenological side of human action in the public realm.  Her focus was on the relation between common human experiences at the individual level and larger-scale public matters such as politics, labor, public action, and social life.

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What is Transcendental Phenomenology?

This post is the first in a series on the main branches of mature phenomenology.  In past posts, I argued that there was proto-phenomenology in the Eastern and Western philosophical traditions going all the way back to ancient times.  We can recognize probably four major branches of mature phenomenology.  Each of these evolved from a synthesis and outgrowth of the schools of thought that were developed in the late Nineteenth Century.  While there is some overlap between them, each of the four had their own unique origin and they each also had their own major proponents in the generations that followed their initial formulation.

Transcendental Phenomenology

In the early Twentieth Century, Edmund Husserl sought a new way to understand reality that could be more comprehensive and more reliable than any that had been proposed up to that point.  The biggest problem that he saw with the intellectual landscape of his time was that there were a few different mutual incompatible worldviews that were enjoying significant popular support, but they were each based on overarching assumptions and complex edifices of beliefs.  Especially with regard to the mind and what it is and how it works, there were widely diverse opinions floating around.

At that time, there were some philosophers who were idealists and some who were material realists.  The idealists of the day, often times being rationalists, tended to think of reality as ultimately being in the mind and that everything that one perceives is entirely mental.  Material realists of the day, most often being empiricists, believed that the mind was a material thing and that it is driven by natural laws and that anything we can think about or know must be understood within that framework.  The advocates of these frameworks tried to make their most convincing case for their way of conceptualizing the mind and reality, but Husserl saw that there was no universal way that one could sort out which of these was more correct than the others.

Husserl saw a way to sort this out by getting to the heart of how empiricism works and by focusing on the experiential side of things.  It is through the assumption of empiricism that the scientific method becomes possible.  In the centuries leading up to Husserl’s time, scientific methodology had become increasingly detailed and the results gained from scientific experiments were increasingly reliable and allowed people to understand the world in a way that was never before possible.  In the century since and leading up the present, the belief in empiricism among those pursuing a greater understanding of nature has helped make incredible achievements happen.  Amazing progress has been made in widely diverse areas of inquiry and continues to be made every day.

There are, however, reasons to believe that science need not be restricted by positivist and material realist assumptions, as was already becoming the overarching assumption of most empiricists in the early Twentieth Century.  Husserl realized the usefulness of science in his day, but he wished to apply it in a way that was slightly different than that of its conventional empiricist roots.  He thought that the direct, first-person study of conscious experience could become a rigorous science and through this one could understand reality better than any based solely on the positivism of his day and also better than what was offered by the variations of idealism that were popular in his time.

His contention is that we should not start with any fundamental assumptions about the way the world is or how the mind works when we start our investigation.  We are looking for certainty here, and any of our foundational assumptions can be wrong and can lead us down the wrong path.  As such, we can set all of that aside and try to take experience as it is directly given, we can focus on the things themselves as they are presented to us in our conscious experience, and we can then to use that as the most certain thing that we know.  It is only after we have that understanding in place that we might be able to figure out a more reliable system that incorporates materialistic science.

Husserl developed a methodology for this process and called it phenomenology.  This word had been used prior to him, but he was the first to apply it to a specific method.  Though the word “phenomenology” was used by Kant and also Hegel, prior to Husserl the definition of this word was not clearly established.  Summaries of Husserl’s life and work often portray him as the inventor of phenomenology, but even if this word is defined quite narrowly, this assertion is highly debatable.  In this work, we are going with a broader definition of “phenomenology” that can be used as an umbrella term for any way of studying experience that relies heavily on introspection and/or other forms of conscious/mental information gathering with the aim of building intersubjective knowledge.

We can say that Husserl initiated, at least within the Western philosophical tradition, the first mature phenomenology wherein there isn’t supposed to be an overarching speculative assumption of some metaphysical system that is both entirely beyond firsthand experience and is not subject to possible revision on the basis of such experience.  Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel all did much of this with their complex metaphysical systems.  Within mature phenomenology, there also isn’t supposed to be an overarching assumption that everything is physical and that everything that we experience is to be explained in terms of this.  Lots of notable thinkers since ancient times have done that, starting with the Ancient Greek atomists, the Epicureans, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Auguste Comte, etc.  There can, however, be times where a philosopher does describe their experience and their metaphysics might be understood to be constructed from a generalization of what is going on.  All phenomenologists do this.  The key to mature phenomenology, however, is that you shouldn’t speculate very much and what you do come up with should be reproducible through intersubjective reasoning and it should be refinable and open to alternate interpretations, which means that the entire edifice you construct could be torn down through subsequent investigation.

Certainly, phenomenology provides a different approach to studying consciousness than do the natural sciences that are based on objectivity and positivism.  Dermot Moran explained this difference and also how such sciences can be seen as complementary to phenomenology:

It is important to grasp the difference between the phenomenological approach and other kinds of scientific approach, for example, the psychological, physiological or causal-explanatory approaches prevalent in the natural sciences.  Husserl insisted on this point, but it still gives rise to endless confusion.  First of all, Husserl is emphatically not challenging the importance, necessity or validity of explanatory scientific accounts.  Investigations into the physical and chemical nature of the brain and its processing are a necessary part of science.  But that is not the function of a phenomenological description, which is a mode of approach that can be used in all areas of science, but which specifically focuses on the manner objects are constituted in and for subjects.  It focuses on the structure and qualities of objects and situations as they are experienced by the subject.[1]

Francisco Varela explained how Husserl saw the relationship between phenomenology and the natural science:

Husserl’s famous dictum: ‘Back to the things themselves!’ which for him meant – the opposite of a third-person objectification – a return to the world as it is experienced in its felt immediacy.  It was Husserl’s hope, and still the basic inspiration behind phenomenological research, that a true science of experience would be gradually established which could not only stand on equal footing to the natural sciences, but in fact would give them a needed ground, for all knowledge necessarily emerges from our lived experience.[2]

In other words, phenomenology cannot assume or utilize the results of any other science in its investigations.  Instead, scientific thinking needs to be recognized as a subset of firsthand lived experience.  It is perfectly acceptable to construct frameworks for deeper understanding of the natural world, but we should remain primarily oriented toward our immediate experience and conceptualize these frameworks in terms of what is more immediately given to us in such experience.  Phenomenology encourages us to get to a more basic and foundational experience of consciousness that is free from the edifice of our prior worldview so that it can be reconstructed on more stable ground.

This general outline of phenomenology was influential to many thinkers, who in some cases were inspired to formulate innovative phenomenological methods and sub-types.  Those will be covered in the subsections to follow, but first we need to examine the specific way that Husserl outlined for phenomenology, which involves a process for getting into a transcendental state of consciousness, wherein one can supposedly detach from all forms of public opinion and grasp the essence of consciousness itself.

He argued that the best way to isolate the central structures of subjectivity is to suspend all prior judgments, which is a process called epoche.  Husserl argued that one can take anything that they believe, even those most central to their life, and “bracket” them, which means to set them aside during careful and systematic introspection and reflection.  In this he took inspiration from Descartes, who detailed in his Meditations how he tried to doubt everything he believed to be true as much as he could and found that the one thing that he could not doubt was his own existence.  Similar to Descartes, Husserl argued that it is possible for anyone to suspend all existing preconceptions of reality and to re-interpret everything in terms of immediate experience.

Husserl believed that through this sort of mental reduction one transcends their natural attitude toward the world and thus achieves a transcendental state of consciousness.  Whereas in the natural attitude, one’s introspective findings are inevitably contaminated by preconceptions and prejudices, once the transcendental state is achieved, more accurate findings can be reached with regards to the structures of consciousness.  Thus, transcendental phenomenology is an analysis of our immediate and pure perceptions of reality, which puts aside all preconceptions about it.  To practice this, you attempt to clear your head of all biases, prejudices, and mental comments on what you see, and you perceive things purely and simply. The product of this is fundamental knowledge which precedes all systematic descriptions of reality.  In order for one to make any statements about reality, they must begin with what their consciousness perceives. Phenomenological reality is precisely that which is perceived by the mind, which would have to have already been there before any thinking about it takes place in the intellect.

What this means is that if one goes through the process of epoche and eliminates all preconceived notions, including all assumed scientific knowledge and ordinary matters of fact, and then focuses solely on what is immediately given to them by experience, they should be able to intuitively grasp the essence of any object or basic concept.  This is based on the process known as eidos, wherein one conceptualizes the form and function of things and understands how they are similar or different and how they can be categorized and structured.  A crucial aspect of the reduction is that all features of conscious experience must be taken as they appear, without our attempting to categorize them as false or illusory and without assessing their validity as such.  The idea is that we cannot always know what our immediate experience means, what it was caused by, nor what it might refers to in the outside world, but we can take inventory and focus on our experiences for what they are.

Like Brentano before him, Husserl saw that consciousness consists of intentions, which is the experience of having ideas that are directed at something, but he expanded this notion to apply more universally regardless of whether these be actual objects in the world or mere imaginations.  He argued that all intentions consist of multiple components, including the quality of the intentional act, such as willing, believing, etc. and the object or content that the intentional act is directed towards, such as that which is willed, that which is believed, etc.  Husserl built on the concept of intentionality to formulate what he called constitution, which is the process through which many intentions form a greater conception of an object, either at a given moment in time or as an object changes through the passing of time.

Husserl then uses the concept of constitution to formulate the highest understanding of conscious experience, which he calls the life-world.  This is one’s conception of the interrelatedness of all things in their conception of reality as they go about their life.  In more advanced forms, this can involve unwinding, piece by piece, the assumptions and the ideology and the beliefs that constitute a worldview and also being cognizant of how these beliefs are structured and are built on top of each other.

The transcendental phenomenology that Husserl formulated was continued by some of his successors.  Among the most notable in this regard are Max Scheler, who extended Husserl’s work into an examination of the essences of emotions and intuition, Roman Ingarden, who used it to analyze how art and aesthetics relate to our lived experience, and Edith Stein, who sought to ground morality in our sense of empathy for one another.  Husserl’s most accomplished student was Martin Heidegger, who took phenomenology in a different direction by integrating it with existentialism and hermeneutics.  These ways of integrating phenomenology with other philosophical disciplines often accompany one another, most notably in Heidegger’s work, but other phenomenologists have been able to separate them to a large extent, and thus we will address each of these forms of phenomenology in the next few blog posts.

[1] Moran, Dermot and Mooney, Timothy. The Phenomenology Reader, p. 2.

[2] Varela, Neuro-phenomenology p. 336


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