The Origin ofÊHusserlian Phenomenological Psychology

The Origin of Husserlian Phenomenological Psychology and its Contemporary Promulgations

 Author: Sean P. Biggins
December 16, 2014


The author attributes the origins of phenomenological psychology to the philosophies of Husserl and Heidegger. Next, the author summarizes the metamorphoses of psychology in the wake of the so-called Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century and how these metamorphoses prepared for phenomenologys emergence in a milieu of phenomenal inquiry in complement to a predominantly quantitative methodology. Then, the author considers the reception of phenomenology by the Munich School (where Lipps psychologism was followed) and explores the disagreement between psychologism considered more broadly and phenomenology about the basis of logic. This leads to a discussion of the distinction between psychological and philosophical phenomenology on the basis of the method of reduction or bracketing employed. The author considers Husserls reflections upon the implications of this distinction late in life and the development of the distinction by other thinkers such as Sartre, who came to see phenomenologys value precisely in supplying meaning to the empirical facts gained by psychology. Finally, the author considers the present-day phenomenological psychologist Amedeo Giorgi and his effort to establish a practical method for such psychology.

Mainstream psychology in todays contemporary intellectual field is quantitative and concerned with the study of phenomena. Phenomenological psychology is in harmony with mainstream contemporary in the latter respect but differs in qualifying such things as meaning and analyzing experiences descriptively rather than treating mental phenomenon extrinsically and measuring them. Phenomenology originated from Husserlian and Heideggerian thought, although it was presaged by William James, and developed through contact with the Munich school (among others) and further elaboration by figures such as Sartre. Contemporary proponents of phenomenological psychology strive to gain wider acceptance of the school through establishing its intellectual pedigree, the historical respectability of qualitative research, and the need for such research. Phenomenological psychology emerged from the changes in emphases of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and exists as one of several schools offering a return to a more human method of studying the human mind.

Psychology underwent two major shifts, the first of which was the shift from qualification to quantification expressed in the shift from investigating consciousness philosophically to investigating it experimentally. Originally, questions presently considered psychological were investigated by many disciplines, among them philosophy, theology, law, and rhetoric. According to Dan Robinson, psychology originated in Greece as the study of the soul conducted systematically by such thinkers as Aristotle (2013). The scholastic thinkers, notably Thomas Aquinas, carried on this method of inquiry through the Middle Ages. This approach was concerned with qualities and metaphysical essences. The nature of psychological inquiry changed dramatically in the wake of the so-called Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Psychologists, admiring the prodigious successes of the natural sciences, strove to transpose psychology from natural philosophy to natural science. Titchener and Wundt were among the vanguard of this effort and produced the structuralist and volunteerist schools respectively (Giorgi, 2009). Other schools such as the functionalist also existed. During this period Franz Brentano advocated a redefinition of psychology as the study of mental phenomena to accommodate the natural scientists. He also developed thoughts on an empirical psychological method as well as revived the scholastic notion of intentional inexistence, which Husserl separately developed into the notion of intentionality, that mental objects are directed toward objects other than themselves (Giorgi, 2009, p. 17).

The second major shift in psychology occurred in the late nineteenth century with the shift from studying consciousness to studying mental phenomena. Franz Brentano argued that psychology, heretofore the study of the soul, needed to be redefined as the study of mental phenomena (Brentano, 1874). He grounded this in the observation thatgiven that the soul is unobservableboth those who believe in a metaphysical soul and those who do not study the same mental phenomena. This redefinition would further distinguish psychology from philosophy and better accommodate it conceptually to the natural sciences.

It is worth noting that William James, who vocally called for the distinction between psychology and metaphysics and for the redefinition of psychology as a natural science in his Plea for Psychology as a Natural Science , anticipated many phenomenological themes in his writings (Giorgi, 2009). He affirms that anything experienced deserved to be included in the scope of human inquiry, and his analysis of the stream of consciousness in his Principles (1809) would later be compared to phenomenological description (Linschoten, 1968, p. 59).

The phenomenological school of psychology derives from Husserlian and Heideggerian philosophy. Husserls psychology developed from his philosophy and is differentiated from it by the type of methodological reduction employed, as will be discussed later. The contemporary Phenomenological school is a fundamentally qualitative school, which distinguishes it from the mainline quantitative schools current today. It is concerned with the meaning of mental phenomena rather than bare facts about them. As such the school demands the practitioner to approach mental phenomena as a human capable of considering them sympathetically. This distinguishes it methodologically from the natural sciences, which, as Daston (1999) notes, presently aspire to view phenomena from an objective, aperspectival vantage point.

As Husserlian phenomenology disseminated, it passed from Husserls own Gttengen to numerous others schools, Munich among them. Husserls phenomenology helped orient many of the Munich students, such as Thedor Conrad, Johannes Daubert, Adolf Reinach, and Moritz Geiger, against psychologism, especially that of their teacher, Theodor Lipps (Frchette, 2012, p. 156). Psychologism treats empirical psychology as first philosophy, which means that logic, ethics, and aesthetics in such a system must be founded on empirical psychological findings (Scanlon, 1997, p. 572). The Munich phenomenologists acceptance of Husserlian thought and their estrangement from their teacher prompted the so-called 1905 Munich Invasion of Gttengen, in which the phenomenologists defecting from Lipps invaded Gttengen to dialogue extensively with Husserl and his pupils (Frchette, 2012, p. 159). Nonetheless, it is important to note that the Munich philosophers did differ from Husserl in some respects: they emphasized the meanings of expressions before all else, they had a particular notion of ideal objects, and they disagreed entirely on the relevance of sensations to phenomenal analysis (Frchette, 2012). At any rate, both the Gttengen and Munich schools agreed that psychology need be distinguished from philosophy.

The phenomenological conception of logic presents a striking contrast to the conception of the proponents of psychologism. They believed that logic is grounded in mental operations such that mental entities are equivalent to logical objects. In contrast, phenomenologists declared that mental entities are not equivalent to logical objects1 (Seebohm, 1997). Husserls effort to distinguish logic from human mental life is complementary to William James discussion of the stream of consciousness, which demonstrates that human thought does not proceed according to logical deduction. All mental entities possess a fringe of associations, to use James (1981) terminology, from which their meanings derive. As human thought is not constrained by logic and as logical objects need not possess a fringe of associations, the conception of logic in psychologism must be deficient.

A twofold change in psychology took place in the late nineteenth century: the investigative methods of the physical and biological sciences were christened for psychology, and lines of inquiry previously open to psychology were reserved for philosophy. Phenomenology is noteworthy for its emphasis on qualitative phenomena. As Giorgi (2009) notes, psychologists looked admiringly at the great success of the physical sciences in the seventeenth century and sought to emulate the evidently potent method in psychology. Examples of the appeal for such a science are evident from figures such as William James in his Plea he opines that almost all the fresh life that has come into psychology of recent years has come from the biologists, doctors, and psychical researchers and therefore that their impulse to constitute the scienceas a branch of biology, were an unsafe one to thwart (1892, p. 149). James also notes that in Ceasing to put herself forward as philosophy she has disarmed the jealousyof the transcendental philosopher (1892, p. 150). Indeed, James describes the movement in which phenomenology was implicated. Husserl in his second edition of the Logical Investigations ceased to dub his philosophy descriptive psychology and the Munich school of phenomenologists rejected the psychologism of their teacher, Lipps (Frchette, 2012).

In this vein, it is necessary to note Husserls distinction between his philosophy and his psychology on the basis of their differing methods of bracketing of experience. Psychological phenomenology uses a psychological-phenomenological reduction in which the object of experience is bracketed and its existence is not predicated. In contrast, philosophical phenomenology entails a transcendental reduction that posits the existence of the object of consciousness. It is worth noting that Husserl explicitly described the affinity of his idealism to Neo-Kantian transcendentalism (Schuhman and Smith, 1993), which explains the reduction method he employed for philosophy.

Late in life Husserl concluded that that his method of psychological phenomenological reduction would eventually collapse into transcendental reduction, which meant that phenomenological psychiatry would be subsumed into transcendental phenomenology, a movement endorsed by Eugen Fink. Another phenomenologist, Strasser, viewed phenomenological psychology as a field distinct from phenomenological philosophy or empirical psychology. By his account it is a certain conception of empirical psychology that can be justified philosophically by phenomenological philosophy in distinction from the psychologies of Wilheim Wundt, Carl Stumpf, John Watson, and Max Wetheimer (Kockelmans, 1997, p. 532).

Sartre, as opposed to Husserl, Finsk, and Strasser, insisted that phenomenological psychology was a distinct field from empirical natural scientific psychology and that its value lay in providing the human meaning of the facts studied empirically. Sartre distinguished phenomenological psychology from philosophy on the basis of the regressive character of the psychology and the progressive character of the philosophy. By this he meant that psychology has a regular recourse to the domain of the empirical and that philosophy, the study of the human essence, cannot be verified by a recourse to empirical facts (Kockelmans, 1997, p. 532-33).

A contemporary psychologist, Amedeo Giorgi, articulates a Husserlian phenomenological methodology for psychology with a particular emphasis on the value of its qualitative approach. He takes pains during his first chapter, in which he gives a history of the development of psychology, to demonstrate that many figures, even those such as Wundt, did not deny the importance of qualitative research even as they encouraged the adoption of novel experimental research methods (2009). Giorgi uses the approval of personages, some of them traditionally considered champions of quantitative research, given to qualitative research to authoritatively support his claim that quantification and qualification are complementary activities equally appropriate and necessary to psychology. His later chapters systematically ground this claim in the scientific phenomenological methods research process, its philosophical context, its structure, and its application. He identifies the two major distinguishing principles of phenomenology to be the premise that intuitions are to be treated as legitimate sources of cognition and to be accepted simply as they present themselves, and the use of the method of free imaginative variation, which permits fictive and not merely factual information to be considered. Giorgi takes great care to emphasize that phenomenology is not opposed to quantitative research. Rather, he explicitly identifies his method as a corrective to an imbalance in contemporary psychology.

The relationship between phenomenological psychology and experimental psychology need not be antagonistic. As noted above, Sartre believed that phenomenology could give meaning to the otherwise cold empirical facts. Indeed, one of the great crises of contemporary times perhaps the crisis is the loss of a sense of meaning in human life. Additionally, scholars in science studies have become increasingly aware that even the purest and hardest of the natural sciences have an ineradicably human character. One can never fully step outside of ones perspective as a human or the social relationships and intellectual commitments that this entails. If this must be remembered for even the hard sciences, then how much more so must it be remembered for the study of the human mind. Phenomenology is not capable of completely curing the contemporary crisis of meaning or the idealization of an unattainable, aperspectival objectivity, but insofar as it assuages either ailment, it performs an inestimable good for our world.

Take the famous syllogism: Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore Socrates is mortal. One may replace the meaningful words Socrates, man, and mortal with the symbols S, M, and P without disrupting the logic of the syllogism (S is M. M is P. Therefore S is P.) This is because logic (and Mathematics for that matter) expresses relationships among undefined objects of thought. Thus, these objects may function perfectly well in logic without having meaning attached to them by the fringe of association.


Brentano, F. (1874/1973). Psychology from an empirical standpoint (A. C. Rancurello & D. B. Terrell & L. L. McAlister, Trans.). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Daston, L. (1999). Objectivity and the escape from perspective. In M. Biagioli. (Ed.), The Science Studies Reader (pp. 110-121). Routledge.

Frchette, G. (2012). Phenomenology as Descriptive Psychology: The Munich Interpretation. Symposium: Canadian Journal of Continental Philosophy, 16 (2), 150-170.

Giorgi, A. (2009). The Descriptive Phenomenological Method in Psychology: A Modified Husserlian Approach . Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

James, W. (1891). The Principles of Psychology . Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

James, W. (1892). A plea for psychology as a natural science. Philosophical Review, I , 146-153.

Kockelmans, J. J. (1997). Philosophy of Psychology. In Encyclopedia of Phenomenology . (Vol. 18, pp. 531-534). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Linschoten, H. (1968). The Way Toward a Phenomenological Psychology . Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press.

Robinson, David. (2013a). Historiography in Psychology: A note on ignorance. Theory & Psychology , 23, 819-828.

Scanlon, J. (1997). Psychologism. In Encyclopedia of Phenomenology . (Vol. 18, pp. 572-577). Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Shuhmann, K., & Smith, B. (1993). Two Idealisms: Lask and Husserl. In Kant-Studien. (Vol. 83, pp. 448-466). Retrieved from:,




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