The Betrayal of Phenomenology

It amounts to a betrayal of the person.

Posted Feb 10, 2020

Psychology is the science of human experience and behavior. – Wolf Nowack, ca. 1980

There are (at least) two major meta-theoretical approaches to psychology; one can be traced to Edmund Husserl, and the other to Hermann von Helmholtz. Husserl laid the groundwork for a humanistic project that came to be known as phenomenology. Helmholtz pioneered the paradigm that became experimental psychology.

Phenomenology is concerned with humans’ lived experience, the content of their consciousness, and the way they reflect on it. Experimentalism is concerned with regularities in human behavior and what these regularities can tell us about the mental processes that turn an input of stimulation into a behavioral output. In short, in phenomenology, the person retains the status of the unit of analysis, whereas in experimentalism, the person is the mere carrier of the psychological processes that produce behavior. It is the processes that are the object of theory and experiment, and it is the processes that are the units of analysis. In the university laboratory, Helmholtz stands at the helm, but phenomenology survives in the consultation room.

The wisdom that lies in the definition of psychology, as handed down by Dr. Wolf Nowack at the University of Bielefeld, Germany, should endure, but it is easily forgotten. Counselors, therapists, and ‘the folk’ remain skeptical about what they might learn from experimental psychology.

When trying to understand, explain, or predict the experience or the behavior of individuals, experimental science seems of little help. Most of that science is normative instead of idiographic. The best it can do is to describe statistical trends as they refer to people in general, and these trends are often weak and at risk of failing to replicate. The cliché that statistics don’t apply to individuals rings true when an individual is in need of comprehending themself. 

Experimentalists may counter that their methods articulate and obey (on a good day) explicit and rational criteria of good science. Experimentalists may also note that they, more so than the phenomenologists, know about the uncertainties that remain even when studies are grounded in theory, carefully designed, and analyzed with appropriate statistical methods. These experimentalists may claim that phenomenologists are deluding themselves when believing that they apprehend and understand themselves and each other with what feels like direct perception and thoughtful analysis.

This sketch, though surely a simplification, suggests that these two approaches to a shared object of interest, that is, to what makes us tick, may easily co-exist by ignoring each other, or they might resort to mutual ridicule — but they will find it difficult to collaborate. But might it not be possible to take the best from each approach to get the most comprehensive picture?

I hold on to the hope that this is possible, but there is little evidence in the contemporary scene to suggest any sort of rapprochement. Some distinguished methodologists, such as Paul Meehl and Robyn Dawes, tried to introduce some scientific ways of thinking into clinical practice but were frustrated by the resistance they encountered (Dawes, Faust, & Meehl, 1989). Conversely, there are certain streams of research that are sensitive to the phenomenological position, such as work on embodied cognition or the narrative approach to personality and identity — perhaps all is not lost.

I was reminded of this fundamental rift in our discipline when reading a recent article by the philosopher Joel Krueger (no relation) on direct social perception, or DSP. Krueger (2018) calls on Husserl and several other luminaries of the Western tradition, such as Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Scheler, and even Wittgenstein, to make the case for the idea that the expressed affect is the affect, which allows the expressor and the observer to see the mind directly. The strong version of this argument is that the distinction between mind and expression is spurious.

From this, it follows that neither the expressor nor the observer needs to draw any inferences about the expressor’s mind, its assumptions, its contents, or its distortions. The argument has a certain appeal when expressions of affect are strong and clear. Natural selection, we may surmise, has favored emotions that operate in the interest of signaling. A display of anger is effective inasmuch as it is directly and accurately perceived by the intended audience. Along the way, the expressor herself receives a signal informing her of her own state. Indeed, experimental psychology has shed much light on this arrangement for a century, which stokes my hope that phenomenologists and experimentalists can collaborate to mutual benefit and the benefit of the rest of us.

The case of strongly expressed anger may serve as proof of the phenomenological concept. However, if limited to strong and visible affect, phenomenology must concede a lot of room to experimentalism. Affects and other mental states or behaviors are often unclear, uncertain, ambiguous, or self-contradictory. DSP loses its immaculate beauty as soon as any of these nuisances is introduced. The folk, many of whom might be card-carrying phenomenologists, soon realize that the minds of others and even their own minds can only be represented, or guessed at, with some sort of theory of mind or mental simulation (Malle & Hodges, 2005). These efforts to understand, explain and predict others are necessarily inferential.

The role of experimental psychology might be, and perhaps should be, to provide the evidence and the tools for us to make better inferences. This may sound like a victory for Helmholtz, as he claimed that inferences are obligatory, even in nonsocial perception. But the phenomenologists, too, can stand tall. Their role is to be the advocates for the person as a unit of analysis. Reductionism has much to recommend itself in experimental science, but when we have understood every tree, we have not understood the forest; when we have understood every neuron, we have not understood the brain; and when we have understood every mental process, we have not understood a person's mind.


Dawes, R. M.. Faust, D., & Meehl. P. E. (1989). Clinical versus actuarial judgment. Science, 243, 1668–1674.

Krueger, Joel (2018). Direct social perception. In A. Newen, D. De Bruin, & S. Gallagher (eds.). The Oxford handbook of cognition (pp. 301-320). Oxford, England. Oxford University Press.

Malle, B. F., & Hodges, S. D. (2005). Other minds: How humans bridge the divide between self and other. New York: Guilford.