On the relevance of phenomenology to cognitive science

I just started reading Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi’s textbook The Phenomenological Mind and I thought this was a particularly clear paragraph on the relevance on phenomenology to cognitive science.

Compare two situations. In the first situation we, as scientists who are interested in explaining perception, have no phenomenological description of perceptual experience. How would we begin to develop our explanation? We would have to start somewhere. Perhaps we would startwith a pre-established theory of perception, and begin by testing the various predictions this theory makes. Quite frequently this is the way that science is done. We may ask where this pre-established theory comes from, and find that in part it may be based on certain observations or assumptions about perception. We may question these observations or assumptions, and based on how we think perception actually works, formulate counter-arguments or alternative hypotheses to be tested out. This seems somewhat hit or miss, although science often makesprogress in this way. In the second situation, we have a well-developed phenomenological description of perceptual experience as intentional, spatial, temporal, and phenomenal. We suggest that starting with this description, we already have a good idea of what we need to explain. If we know that perception is always perspectivally incomplete, and yet that we perceive objects as if they have volume, and other sides that we cannot see in the perceptual moment,then we know what we have to explain, and we may have good clues about how to design experiments to get to just this feature of perception. If the phenomenological description is systematic and detailed, then to start with this rich description seems a lot less hit or miss. So phenomenology and science may be aiming for different kinds of accounts, but it seems clear that phenomenology can be relevant and useful for scientific work.

~The Phenomenological Mind, Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, p. 9-10

This general idea is echoed in Julian Jaynes’ quip that the attempt to find consciousness in the brain will inevitably fail unless you know what you are looking for in the first place.



Filed under Phenomenology, Psychology

2 responses to “On the relevance of phenomenology to cognitive science

  1. Charles Wolverton

    But if in the second scenario the “well-developed phenomenological description of perceptual experience” assumes a phenomenology that is often described as “ineffable”, “suggestive of panpsychism”, “the hard problem”, etc, are you really better off? And isn’t that where we are today? And if so, mightn’t there be some advantages to a version of the first scenario in which you take an evolutionary approach starting with an assumed absence of phenomenal experience (at least as we know it today)?

    Those are real, not rhetorical questions. So, if I’ve missed the point or the answers are Y,N,N, I’d actually be delighted to know that – and, of course, why.

    BTW, I’m a regular reader and learn a lot from your posts. Thanks.

    • Gary Williams


      I think you are right to point out a danger with the second scenario, namely, that bad phenomenology can lead to bad theory. It’s perfectly possible for someone to take the “phenomenological” route and misdescribe phenomenal experience, thus making their science all the worse. The key thing for me is the methodological importance of getting descriptions right, but I acknowledge that many phenomenologists are vague or fuzzy in their descriptions, which makes for bad science. However, I nevertheless think that it is important to get your description and definition of consciousness straight before you attempt to find or locate it in terms of neural processes. In this way, I recommend that mind scientists start from the “top” rather than the “bottom”.

      With that said, I certainly don’t want to isolate my definitions and descriptions from the results of evolutionary science, or any other science. I think that both description and explanation should mutually constrain each other. My definition of phenomenal experience will be different once I take into account the evolutionary development of phenomenal experience, and my explanation of phenomenal experience will be different once I take into account a rigorous mental taxonomy based on phenomenological analysis.

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