Within psychology, phenomenology constitutes the first step in a wider methodology called the psychophysical approach. As part of this approach, the subject is presented with a stimulus, one that produces a perceptual effect — for example, apparent movement. The subject describes what he or she perceives, then the researcher tries to account for why the subject experiences what she does, in this case why she sees movement when no movement is present.


Illusion by George Mather (Sussex University, UK)

Consciousness Explained is a self-declared critique of phenomenology. Dennett advocates the psychophysical approach to consciousness, which he dresses up as his own method for some reason. He calls it “heterophenomenology,” which he refers to as an impure form of phenomenology in contrast with the pure form. But Dennett’s explanation of phenomenology is muddled. In particular, he fails to properly distinguish the phenomenological movement in philosophy and phenomenology as a step in psychophysics. His “heterophenomonology” is essentially psychophysics.

Dennett presents, as detached and isolated from the other steps, what is really only the first step in the wider methodology of psychophysics. The naive introspective description given by the subject is presented in such a way that Dennett makes it stand in for the philosophical movement, which he then proceeds to criticize, arguing that it has to be supplemented precisely by a discipline already exists: psychophysics. His entire critique of phenomenology hinges on presenting psychological phenomenology as philosophical phenomenology. He has confounded two related, but largely different, systems of thought.

Alluding to this division between acute observation and theoretical explanation, the philosophical school or movement known as Phenomenology (with a capital P) grew up early in the twentieth century around the work of Edmund Husserl. Its aim was to find a new foundation for all philosophy (indeed, for all knowledge) based on a special technique of introspection, in which the outer world and all its implications and presuppositions were supposed to be ‘bracketed’ in a particular act of mind known as the epoché. The net result was the investigative state of mind in which the Phenomenologist was supposed to become acquainted with the pure objects of conscious experience, called noemata, untainted by the usual distortions and amendments of theory and practice (Dennett 44).

But just as in psychology phenomenology is merely the first step of the psychophysical approach, in Husserl’s phenomenology the epoché constitutes only a single step of a  methodology. Equally important — and not mentioned by Dennett — is the eidetic (formal) reduction. The latter is precisely what keeps phenomenology from degenerating into the naive introspection which Dennett finds so objectionable as an independent procedure.

Without the eidetic reduction, phenomenology remains mired in what Husserl called psychologism, in mere subjective impressions. Husserl wants to focus on the structure of human consciousness as such. (Incidentally, you hardly ever see the word written with that capital P, either in the secondary literature or in translation. In German it was standard practice to capitalize nouns.)

Dennett accuses phenomenology of hindering progress in the empirical study of how our brains produce consciousness. Phenomenology leaves that task where it belongs: with the natural sciences. Its task is different: in Husserl’s case, to describe the structure of consciousness; in Heidegger’s, the structure of being-in-the-world (one reason Husserl’s and Heidegger’s methods differ.)

I mention all this mostly as a warning to my readers not to make the same mistake. What is meant by the word phenomenology in psychology is not to be confused with the philosophical movement founded by Husserl.


Edmund Husserl



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