Phenomenology: What is it and why should you care?

Would a sentient fish ever wonder what water is? Do you ever wonder what time is? Probably not: Some aspects of our experience are so ‘obvious’ that we just don’t notice them. Phenomenology is a philosophical approach that aims to uncover the obvious. The aspects of our experience that we take for granted can be difficult to identify, but these hidden assumptions and attitudes entwine us.

Phenomenology originated with Edmund Husserl in the early 20th century. Husserl wanted to very carefully examine our experience, teasing out our presuppositions and interpretations to try to get closer to the things themselves. He called our everyday, habitual way of experiencing the world the ‘natural attitude’, and phenomenology offers a way to step back from that. Phenomenology is similar to mindfulness in the way that it invites us to become “aware of the fullness, variety and transiency of experiences in the stream of consciousness” (Patrik). In other ways we might see phenomenology as a scientific project. Husserl saw it a rigorous “science of the essence of consciousness” (Husserl), and there’s some validity to that. Phenomenology is influential in psychology, and has been applied to both Artificial Intelligence and cognitive science.

A fish thinking "What's water?"

Phenomenology is essentially the study of phenomena – that is, things as they appear in our lived experience. It’s grounded in careful observation and description. Phenomenologists investigate all kinds experience, including perception, imagination, emotions and bodily awareness. Phenomenology was foundational in my psychotherapy training and it’s vital in Focusing Oriented Therapy: Being able to pay careful attention to my own experience and that of my client is essential to good therapeutic practice.

Husserl begins with the notion of “intentionality” – the way that all consciousness is “consciousness of something”. That sounds very obvious but that’s partly what phenomenology is about; paying attention to what we think is obvious. It can be quite revealing to pay careful attention to our awareness. Let’s say I’m signing a document. We might assume that I’ll be aware that I’m holding a pen while I’m signing. But let’s look more closely: In the moment that I’m signing, I’m not paying attention to the pen at all. In a strange way the pen is transparent to my awareness. If it stops working, then the pen will leap into the foreground of my consciousness, but if not I’ll just sign my name as I have so many times before.

Phenomenology isn’t just for therapists and academics; it can be usefully applied in everyday life. It can help us avoid errors in reasoning like confirmation bias (preferring perspectives that support our pre-existing views) and projection bias (assuming that most people think just like we do). I invite you to question what seems ‘obvious’ in your own life. My guess is that you’ll become more aware of the nuances of experience that we miss when we rely on the habits and unthinking assumptions of the ‘natural attitude’.

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