A Philosophy of Nursing Forum
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Nursing's Love Affair with Phenomenology: The Intellectual Version of
“What Does She See In Him?"

Whenever a cousin or family friend would bring a new beau by to meet our family, my mother would be the gracious southern lady. Juleps or sherry were served, along with country ham biscuits (sort of tastes like British bacon, but with lots of hickory smoke, sugar, pepper and salt), cantaloupe, and other delectables. Polite probing concerning educational achievement, social status, and net worth would be conducted that had to be, for the victim, about as pleasant as "waterboarding." No sooner were the poor souls out the door than she would turn to my father and ask: "What does she see in him?" He never had a satisfactory answer of course, but he wasn't expected to in any event. The American South is, after all, a matriarchy. There is some information, the nuclear secrets of the human experience, that southern men a not permitted access to, and such questions are asked only to remind us that we don't have an answer, and are, in a way Marx never imagined, "everywhere in chains."

I am in the same predicament when it comes to Phenomenology, at least as Husserl propounded it. One reason might be my "philosophical upbringing;" my philosophical mentors have been, broadly and variously, logicians, pragmatists, process philosophers, Humeans, and neo-Kantians. None of them were particularly "phenomenology friendly." However, I deny that my cluelessness about the virtues of phenomenology is only blind prejudice, acquired in the philosophical cradle, or through Skinnerian conditioning. I think I have good reasons for believing that a phenomenological approach is of only (very) limited value to the intellectual life of nursing today. Moreover, I feel exactly the same way about that line of thought, beginning with Kierkegaard, running through Nietzsche and ending (blessedly) with Sartre, which is labeled as "existentialism" for the sake of convenience. Let's leave existentialism for another post. And, this blog isn't a good vehicle for detailing all of the reasons why I don't think phenomenology is particularly valuable to nurses, or anyone else for that matter (except, perhaps, MA candidates in Sociology who want to justify getting a degree based on a thesis that really amounts to a mediocre autobiography). Instead, I'll just provide a sketch of one such reason, and wait for the fallout.

What, exactly, is phenomenology supposed to do for us? What makes it big news? Supposedly, if I am recalling Husserl correctly through the mists of time, it is supposed to 1) tell us how the mind works, and 2) provide a way to reach apodictic conclusions (conclusions which are indubitable in some way or another). Leaving aside the discussion of #1 for now, how does a phenomenological approach, per Husserl, accomplish feat #2? A follows: by setting aside any assumptions about the existence of an external world and studying only the way things seem, we reach conclusions about which we cannot be mistaken. Or so the story goes. We're all transcendental idealists now!

It isn't hard to see a particular reading of Kant (of which Kant himself might not approve) at the heart of this, admixed with a regrettable dose of Descartes and his attempt to beat the skeptical demon from the first person point of view (the wrong tactic, as far as I am concerned). Phenomenology, as thus described, is a sort of transcendental idealism, making its philosophical living on the supposed distinction between phenomena and noumena. The phenomenal, "lived" world; that world we can "know" about no matter what tricks Descartes' Demon, or mad alien scientists who have "envatted" us, are trying to pull. However, the noumenal, "external" world, the world of the "thing in itself," the world as it is from no particular point of view, is either 1) forever "out of bounds," something that it makes no sense (but only SEEMS to make sense) to even talk about, even though we are compelled in some way to do so, or 2) something which we somehow posit, or infer, on the basis of what we KNOW in virtue of the study of phenomena, or 3) something our minds construct (via mechanisms to be explained at some future, conveniently unspecified, date). On any of these interpretations, the possibility of error is supposedly excluded.

The initial plausibility of the first step in such a project is easy enough to sympathize with. It certainly seems that, as I type this, I am experiencing a seeming of "Stonewall the old black and tan coon dog snoozing on a mat in the corner," and that this is, indeed, apodictic. But, as I recollect, even Husserl would agree that this bit of information is neither particularly interesting nor useful. But there are lots of potentially useful and interesting things I DO want to know; things like: who will read this post, and what will they think of it? Will the Democrats regain control of Congress next week? Do I have any Wild Turkey left in the decanter?

These concepts of IPONS subscribers, fellow citizens, and Wild Turkey, in other words, are concepts of an objective reality; I do not conceive of them as appearances in my mind, but as features and fellows in a world I am happy I share with them. In the case of IPONS list subscribers, for example, my concepts are concepts of a real John Paley, John Drummond, Janet Holt, Catherine O'Neill, Geralyn Hayes, Helen Kohlen, Drerek, Sarah, et. al. My concepts of IPONS members are concepts of persons with bodies existing in an objective reality, extended in time and space, having minds and separate identities, offering handshakes and hugs, and existing outside of my (maybe envatted) brain and in no way dependent on it (fortunately for them - who in their right mind would want to be dependent on my mind for their existence? Or does the question beg the question?)

If the aforementioned memory serves, Husserl wasn't oblivious to this. To grossly oversimplify here, I read Husserl as attempting to demonstrate that we naturally, based on apodictic experience (or perhaps even prior to it), posit, or theorize, or just naturally assume the existence of, other "I's," who also experience a world of seemings, and this in turn gives rise to the conception of an objective world. For these reasons, it is open to Husserl to argue that the fact that my concepts are concepts of objectivity is just what I should expect. The difficulty here is that, the minute we start talking about naturally tending to posit other "I's," the certainty that was the desiderata of this project has disappeared. Why is it not possible that this "natural tendency" is systematically mistaken and misleading? How is it a better guide to the really real than "clear and distinct ideas," and, therefore, how are we any better off with Husserl than we were with Descartes?

Turning to the question of insights into the mind, here too phenomenology may not be really offering us what we need. We want to know not only how the mental seems to us, but also how minds (yours, mine, Stonewall's, George Bush's, our patients, etc) work in terms of interacting with this objective world Husserl claims to have shown that we cannot help but conceptualize. I recall nothing helpful in Husserl when THAT question is posed. Actually, it is less than clear that Husserl would even acknowledge that our minds DO interact with an external, objective reality; rather, I recall him saying at some point that the mind "conditions the possibility of the world," whatever that is supposed to mean.

Notice how most of these problems just go away when we stop goofing around in the philosophical first person, and start our inquiry from the third person point of view. Rather than solipsistically musing about my own seemings, I can begin inquiry when I behold Stonewall on the trail of that ancestral enemy of his blood, the raccoon, and undertake a study of this remarkable creature's truly wonderful capacities to know and act upon his world. Tom Nagel and his misdirected musings about bats notwithstanding, I can learn many things about what it is like to be Stonewall, and others of his brave and noble kind, and come to know how he is able to accomplish the truly amazing feats of which he is capable. There seems to be no conceptual barrier to doing the same thing with others of MY kind, as well, and no good reason to believe that what is true in their case is not also true in mine, and vice versa.

But, if the first person is the wrong place to begin, then phenomenology generally is the wrong tool to use. So, asks my Mom, "what does she see in him?"

Comments, anyone?
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I am quite new to phenomenology and I have found your discussion very fruitful as it has helped me to understand phenomenlogy as applied to nursing versus how it was intended to be used by Husserl and Hiedegger a little bit more. Can I join in this discussion? and will you excuse me if some of what I contribute is quite right, I would appreciate your more expert opinions.
Hi Val,

Yes, PLEASE join the discussion! It seems that without you, we will not be having one, apparently!

I do want to say upfront that I am no expert on Phenomenology. Many, perhaps most, IPONS members have read a good deal more of Husserl and Hiedegger than I have. I have been delving into them lately, however, because my students (especially my nursing students) are interested in them. Up until this year, I have passed over Phenomenology in silence, to paraphrase Kant, when teaching History of Philosophy. I have been passing over Foucault and Derrida as well, telling my students that they weren't really philosophers, just bad historians and worse literary critics who they could learn about, if they insisted, from instructors teaching in the sociology, literature and women's studies departments.

I have changed my ways in this regard after being chastized by Phil Kitcher (see the October 25th post), who insisted that I was being uncharitable (at least) to Foucault, and possibly Derrida (via my criticism of his principal American philosophical defender, Dick Rorty) as well. My admiration for Kitcher is such that I took this criticism to heart. Still, I didn't just retreat like a whipped puppy. When Kitcher asked me what I so vehemently disagreed with Rorty about, I told him it was Rorty's rejection of the role of correspondence in the conception of truth, which he, Dr. Kitcher, so persuasively defends. This produced a fleeting grin on Dan Dennett's face, so maybe I can be said to have gone down fighting.

Now that I am done with self-congratulatory name dropping, time to return to Phenomenology. I am sure that many readers, steeped in years of study of continental philosophy, could find much to criticize in my post. It doubtless vastly oversimplifies matters, although I think being ABLE to simplify Hiedegger and Husserl is a valuable talent, the exercise of which is a genuine public service. However, reading the post over again, I am going to stand by it until I receive scholarly correction.

I think this would be a good point at which to mention one other aspect of phenomenology which gives me pause - it is extraordinarily difficult to get at precisely what its practicioners mean. For example, one finds Husserl saying things like this:

"It is my conviction that intentional phenomenology has for the first time made spirit as spirit the field of systematic scientific experience, thus effecting a total transformation of the task of knowledge"

What, exactly, is that supposed to mean?

It seems to me that Husserl was either 1) predicting the rise of cognitive science, in the form of Dennett's "Heterophenomenology" - roughly, that the combining the details of subjects self-reports with "all the data we can gather about concurrent events in the brains of subjects and in the surrounding environment, comprise the total data set for a theory of human consciousness. It leaves out no objective phenomena and no subjective phenomena of consciousness," - or that he (Husserl) was 2) claiming that there is something more to know about consciousness than what Dennett enumerates. If it is the second meaning, then I take Husserl to be committed to epistemological non-naturalism as regards the mind (at least), and to be positing some sort of ghost in the machine.
Hi it's taken me a while to find my way back to the site and to accessing it-again I apologise for my novice application.
Your comments Robert are interesting and worrisome, as a novice to Husserl and Hiedegger I had to take time out to consider what you possit. I suppose it is somewhat difficult to understand these philosophers as the interpreted work may not be as clear the first language.
I think phenomena of supernatural is too far rom the truth(if there is any such thing). We are all phenomena for there are levels within our conciousness that make us the unique individuals that we are, in almost the same way that each of us possesses our own unique genetic code(DNA). The abilities, practices of abilities and results can never be the same for everyone.
Perhaps this is why when using phenomenology as a research methodology one's obsewrvations on phenomena are almost impossible for another person to understand. You are quite literally deconstructing the presupposed order and structure of people, nature, objects, thoughts and of course ideas. Then, by observation and perception you re-construct what you have taken apart. This is like peeling an onion you get to know each intricate layer, but it also means that if you are using phenomenology as a research methodology that you have to be concious that you are aware , and honest of your own presuppositions, predudices that may ravel within the re-constructed version.
Hi Robert, I am a demanding student, I have accessed the blog fairly regularily to see if the debate continues and sadly it hasn't. So I'll try to be constructive and to add a little more. What do you think Hiedegger really meant by ,'being', 'being in' 'Being-in-the world'? I keep reflecting upon this to identify if my own perceptions are true.

I think he meant 'being' to be who you are, physically, emotionally and spiritually, but that leads me to philosophical thinking-how do I know I am who I think I am?, or even what I think I am?.There are times when I don't understand the person that controls me or the way I am-so it becomes confusing to rationalise that understanding of 'being'.
'Being in' for me means my 'situatedness', the culture I live in, the upbringing I have had and I suppose the fundamental 'norms', beliefs and values that I hold dear and that influence my 'being-in' the world.So what is my 'being-in' or 'being of the world'? is this to do with the organism I am or did he mean something completely different? Great philosophers but each read makes me questions the beliefs that I start out with and I could do with some constructive guidance to forge a deeper understanding and to be able to engage within this blog more deeply and meaningfully.
HI Robert, It's quite a while since I accessed the blog as I have been busily scribbling my assignment. The blog did well in assisting me to pass the assignment.
I'm still wondering if we can entice others interested in using phenomenology for research to access the Blog. It would be a tremendous help for me to have the opportunity to discuss philosophical underpinnings of this approach
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