Thomas's Rant

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Husserl’s Challenge to Empirical Psychology

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This is another essay from my philosophy class at Melbourne Uni. Husserl’s criticism is I think a radical point that can provide the basis of a ‘psychology’ of experience that is not confused with scientific/psychobabble theories which hold knowledge as the basis of experience (something I consider a tautology). I look forward to investigating this further in the summer break when I’ll have time to study what I want. I am particularly looking forward to attempting to join Sartre’s existentialism to mythological concepts.

Husserl believes that without phenomenology empirical psychology remains ‘naïve’. What does he mean? Is he right?

Edmund Husserl argues that empirical psychology cannot provide a sound methodology for investigating the structures of human consciousness. He argues that empirical psychology discloses confused, unreliable, often merely peripheral findings, limiting both the questions it can ask and the answers it can provide. This leads Husserl to argue for phenomenology as providing a more complete and logical system. I find Husserl’s argument to be confusingly presented but basically credible within the parameters of consciousness and its investigation. However, I would like to raise the suggestion that a credible argument, while not usually vitally affected by confusing presentation, may in fact be fundamentally undermined by such presentation in the unique instance of phenomenological theory.

In his 1911 essay, “Philosophy as Rigorous Science” (“Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft”), Husserl speaks of, “the ‘naiveté’ with which… natural science accepts nature as given” (172). By ‘natural science’, Husserl refers to the branch of the sciences focussed on studying the rules governing the natural world. These sciences – for example, physics, chemistry, biology – operate by means of the scientific method of empiricism. The basic empiricist practise involves positing a theory about nature, testing this theory in the physical world so as to determine if it is confirmed by natural conditions, thereby discovering nature’s laws, processes, and properties. This is what Husserl means by ‘accepting nature as given’; the empiricist necessarily presupposes that (a) there is a substantial physical world that exists to be tested: “Nature [is] considered as a unity of spatio-temporal being subject to exact laws of nature” (Husserl 169).

Further to this, Husserl also argues that the empiricist presupposes that (b) this world is existing separately from us, that is, the physical ‘natural’ world is not seen to rely on or be affected by our human perception. This is why empirical researchers take great care to ensure that their experiments are unaffected by human bias or influence: “physics… excludes in principle the phenomenal [read: the subjective human influence] in order to look for the nature that presents itself” (Husserl 178).

Husserl is not referring to the natural sciences per se as ‘naïve’. Famously, the empiricist theory has facilitated many of the great advances of modern science. Rather, Husserl attacks the application of empiricist methods (and their associated ‘naturalism’) within the social sciences, particularly within psychology, the study of human mental functions and behaviours. Husserl argues that the proper means of studying human consciousness is via phenomenology, broadly defined in this essay as the philosophical science concerning ‘anything psychical’ (180). The psychical dimension Husserl outlines is drastically different from the physical world as conceived of by the natural sciences. “Everything psychical…,” he writes, “is… a unity that in itself has nothing at all to do with nature, with space and time or substantiality and causality, but has its thoroughly peculiar [unique] ‘forms’. It is a flow of phenomena” (180). Husserl considers empirical psychology ‘naïve’ because it fails to take account in its methodology of this fundamental difference between ‘human’ and ‘physical’ nature.

For instance, in the psyche, Husserl argues, “there is, properly speaking, only one nature, the one that appears in the appearance of things” (179). This means that there is no fundamental split between the apparently ‘subjective’ elements of human perception and the physical, ‘natural’ phenomena of the empiricist’s conception. All phenomena of consciousness, including both ‘real’ things and ‘imagined’ things, are experienced in the same “flow” of consciousness. This contradicts (b) above. Along with this, the concept ‘real’, as defined by the empiricist, as in ‘substantial’, and ‘physically existing’, can have no intrinsic meaning in the psychical mode (Husserl 179). The mind experiencing a phenomenon does not necessarily “posit existentially… the individual being of empirical details” (Husserl 182). This contradicts (a); in the psychical mode, the substantial physical world need not exist – at least, not as the empiricist defines it.

And yet, and this is Husserl’s thesis, empirical psychology often presupposes nature, that is, human consciousness is studied as if it were a part of and functioning within the field of empirical nature. Nature is not removed from the equation at the outset so that consciousness can be studied in and for itself (as subjective consciousness was when studying nature), instead it is left in, where it distorts and confuses the enquiry. Husserl uses the example of a calculator, or, as Klaus Held elaborates for modern times, a computer (Held 11). The two domains of empirical naturalism and psychical phenomenology are imagined as the different ‘worlds’ of a computer’s hardware and its software. The ‘phenomena’ of these two worlds are very different: the ‘hardware’ world contains keyboard, mouse, table, and chair; the ‘software’ world contains icons, scroll bars, and windows. It then follows that the old joke about the secretary who applies liquid paper to the computer screen is a metaphoric illustration of how Husserl believes that empiricists are conducting their psychical research – by mixing up the two domains.

One could object that by separating the domain of psychical investigation from natural enquiry, Husserl is leaving the domain of credible science altogether. After all, when we study, say, rock-wallabies, we do not try to abandon human conception of nature (or rock-wallabies) and attempt to discover what the rock-wallaby sees itself as, in rock-wallaby terms. Such an exercise sounds, at best, like an expressive, artistic activity rather than a scientific one. However, when it comes to human consciousness, there is, I argue, one strong reason why we should abandon the empirical field and plunge into purely psychical thinking: the reasoning phenomenological philosopher is him- or herself, knowingly or unknowingly, examining the psychical from within the psychical domain itself. Hence another argument that supports Husserl’s thesis is that empirical study requires a separation from the object of study ((b) above) and no thinker can achieve this separation with respect to human consciousness; the empirical method is inoperative in such a situation. The human observer is forever compromising the empirical process when examining human consciousness itself.

Husserl also argues that the confusion between the psychical and the physical in empirical psychology reduces the psychical, the supposed object of study, to “a variable dependant on the physical” (169), lobsidedly granting intrinsic value to empirical facts only (170). The result is that psychical phenomena are treated as if they had the consistent physical qualities of substantial objects. Husserl likens this to a study of abstract numbers as if these were actual things that existed somewhere. Also, this effectively becomes a study of the content of consciousness while excluding the all-important structuring principles of the mind. The best result, according to Husserl, is that “experimental psychology… discovers… valuable regularities, but of a very mediate [incidental, peripheral] kind.” (174). However, it might be objected, to this view, that empirical psychologists do not mean these terms quite as concretely as Husserl suggests. Investigating ‘depression’ or ‘the Freudian id’, the psychologist interprets his or her terms less distinctly or partly metaphorically even in empirical studies, although this inconsistency is itself concerning.

Husserl suggests that only phenomenology can effectively investigate consciousness as it treats the psychical “according to its [own] essence in all its distinguishing forms” (173). His method is necessarily philosophical and rational, as in, non-empirical, because it must “admit no absurd naturalizings” (180). Indeed, Husserl argues that the very idea of conducting an empirical-style experiment ‘within’ the psychical domain is illogical, or at least, highly dubious. The “psychical… comes and goes; it retains no enduring, identical being that would be objectively determinable” (Husserl 180).

And yet, Husserl has a tendency of exaggerating all that phenomenology encompasses. This, I argue, has lead some interpreters (if not Husserl himself) to argue, or appear to argue, that phenomenology can offer radical new ontological discoveries (that is, discoveries about the actual existence of phenomena), or that Husserl at least leaves this option open. I argue that Husserl’s criticisms of empirical philosophy make it absolutely clear that phenomenology can in no way address the problem of ‘being’ in the sense that we usually mean this term, that is, as signifying empirical and ‘natural’ existence. When Husserl writes that, “In the psychical sphere… there is no distinction between appearance and being” (179), I interpret him to mean that, within the psychical mode, phenomena that are said to empirically exist are not intrinsically more meaningful or more ‘present to conscious’ than phenomena that we would empirically call ‘imaginary’, ‘subjective’, or ‘mere appearance’. (He may also mean that phenomena in a sense are, or exemplify, the structures of consciousness, as experienced.) He does not mean that phenomena, as experienced, may provisionally exemplify something intrinsic to empirical being at the same time as being only psychical ‘appearances’. If he is making this claim, Husserl is being inconsistent as: “What psychical being ‘is’, experience cannot say in the same sense that it can with regard to the physical” (180), and, “Knowledge of essence is by no means matter-of-fact knowledge” (182). Phenomenology, as clearly shown in relation to empirical science, cannot comment on empirical being as empirical laws and processes do not apply, cannot be made to consistently work, within the closed field of the psychical.

This confusion arises as a consequence of Husserl’s word usage (which may possibly be linked to the concrete terms required by rational philosophical discourse itself). For example, to demonstrate the type of problem: When we ask, ‘what exists for the psychical?’ if we mean ‘exists’ in the empirical sense, there is no answer to this question. It is invalid. But if by ‘exists’ we mean ‘is present to’, as in, ‘makes up’ and ‘is encountered as part of’, the flow of consciousness then this question can be answered using phenomenology. And yet the confusion around fundamental words, like ‘being’, remains.

In criticising Husserl’s confusing writing style (at least in translation), we must be wary that this may result from “the extraordinary wealth of consciousness-differences…[which] flow into each other without differentiation” (175). However, one wonders that Husserl can criticise psychology for using words in a vague, chaotic fashion (177), when his own use of terminology is hardly more illuminating. For instance, he often uses common terms but with obscure and diverse meanings that he fails to separately define – ‘intuitive fulfillment’, ‘casual perceptions’, ‘being-there’. Worse, he writes in abstractions and only very rarely provides examples to illustrate and clarify. This means that Husserl has many commentators all providing slightly differing impressions of his theory, to which I add the summary (or perhaps interpretation) in this essay.

This confusion in Husserl’s writing style is not likely to endear his arguments to a popular audience, but in most philosophical disciplines it is usually the reasoning that counts over the presentation (which can be overlooked as a mere irritating hindrance to ingesting the theory). I would like here to suggest, however, that when it comes to phenomenology, confused presentation may equate to confused reasoning. Husserl writes, “In the psychical sphere… there is no distinction between appearance and being” (179). He implies that, when studying consciousness, it is not what our consciousness perceives but of what it consists of that is pertinent. In other words, it is not what we are conscious of but the way of perceiving (of ‘being present to consciousness’) that should be studied. I argue this equates to the expression, ‘It is not what is said, but the way it is said.’ Hence, the word chosen to describe the psychical is as significant to consciousness as the appearance-being delineated. A misunderstood word (such as ‘being’) results in the grasping hold, in the mind, of an entirely incorrect conception, which any lack of clarifying metaphoric examples or word-definitions in the surrounding text may render entirely incomprehensible or permanently misunderstood. Phenomenology is the ultimate study of self-referential natively indistinct abstract structures of thought and meaning – a misplaced word actually changes the psychical structures delineated.

This is not the place to outline an alternative language system but I want to suggest that the metaphoric structures delineated through comparative mythology[1] might provide a clearer vocabulary for phenomenology. Metaphors are capable of multiple connections across the same ‘field’ of psychical phenomena as the mental processes they are mirroring. This way, there would be, as per consciousness, no difference between a metaphoric image (in the mind, of a phenomenon) and a meaning-structure (to the mind). I have not the space to argue this here but I raise this to illustrate how Husserl’s difficult language can be seen to compromise his argument, perhaps fundamentally.

To conclude, Husserl’s criticisms of empirical psychology centre on the inappropriate application of empirical methods to psychical studies. Husserl argues that empirical methods can only distort as the object of examination (the ‘psychical’) is either overlooked altogether or addressed only mediately. The extent which psychologists objectivise and ‘naturalise’ may be somewhat exaggerated but Husserl’s criticism is credible when we consider that empirical methods cannot function properly when human consciousness examines itself. However, Husserl’s attempts to explain phenomenology using ill-defined abstract terminology leads to a lack of clarity which hampers his argument and may undermine his philosophy as a viable alternative. This may in fact be Husserl’s ‘naivety’.

Word count: 2179 (including footnotes but excluding in-text references).

Works Cited:

Held, Klaus. “Husserl’s Phenomenological Method.” Translated by Lanei Rodemayer. The New Husserl. A Critical Reader. Ed. Donn Welton. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003. 3-32.

Husserl, Edmund. “Philosophy as Rigorous Science.” Phenomenology and the Crisis of Philosophy. Translated by Quentin Lauer. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. 71-147. Reproduced in PHIL20041 Phenomenology and Existentialism Tutorial Reader 2012. Melbourne: University of Melbourne, 2012. 2-12. (Page numbers in the text are according to the original 1965 translation pagination.)

[1] Mythology is here defined in the sense of myth and religion interpreted in a non-dogmatic, literary-style analysis in which the elements of the myth are read as metaphoric of psychical structures.


Written by tomtomrant

14 October 2012 at 3:02 pm

Posted in myth, philosophy

Tagged with , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. “in its methodology of this fundamental difference between ‘human’ and ‘physical’ nature.” Nature is not the best expression here 🙂

    Én Vagyok

    31 May 2013 at 11:25 am

  2. Why? Human nature versus physical nature? What would you suggest instead? I have to admit that I don’t find the word ‘nature’ here more confusing than it is anywhere else in the article ….


    31 May 2013 at 2:04 pm

    • Husserl says that the consciousness cannot be described by the same method the natural sciences use to describe the nature. When I red human nature and physical nature I instantly thought that (for second) you missed the word but you used it in an anther sense….

      Én Vagyok

      2 June 2013 at 5:01 am

      • You are right – I am using the expression “human nature” which in English refers roughly to human consciousness. See definitions eg It is a bit of a pun/poetic use of English. You are right that I am using ‘nature’ outside its usual sense there.


        2 June 2013 at 7:13 pm

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