Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

Vol. 1.1 (2002)





Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences: Introduction



            Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences is an interdisciplinary journal.  It aims to provide a forum for the investigation of issues that define the intersections between phenomenology, empirical science, and analytic philosophy of mind.


            There is a growing interest among phenomenologists and philosophers of mind in experimental results developed in the cognitive neurosciences, psychology, and the clinical sciences.  This is a common interest that the new journal seeks to explore.  Its publication represents an attempt to foster a constructive dialogue between phenomenological approaches (defined mainly but not exclusively in the broad tradition following Edmund Husserl) and disciplines that have not always been open to or aware of phenomenological contributions to the understanding of cognition.  Its targeted audience includes philosophers, scientists, and clinicians involved in the study of cognition, and interested in the connection between empirical studies and the first-person perspective.



The reasons why such a dialogue is far from being easy


            Since the beginning of the twentieth century, when Husserl established the new philosophical approach of phenomenology, and thinkers like Frege and Russell were shaping the beginnings of an analytic approach, these two traditions have developed separately, if not in open hostility.  On the one hand, this situation, still quite real in some circles, is paradoxical for two reasons.  First, on the theoretical level, both phenomenology and early analytic philosophy had common roots in the philosophy of mathematics that led them to join forces in the critique of psychologism.  Second, on the personal level, there were important and productive exchanges between Husserl, Frege, and Russell.[1]  Husserl, trained as a mathematician and introduced to psychology through Brentano's early teachings, was influenced by Frege's criticism of psychologism. 


On the other hand, the opposition between analytic philosophy and phenomenology can be clearly seen in their different attitudes toward naturalism.  Husserl's anti-psychologism broadened into a critique of naturalism.  By employing specific phenomenological methods, he seemingly undercut naturalistic (empiricist) approaches to consciousness.  This led to a transcendental stance and the claim for the primacy of the constitutive a priori structures of subjectivity. Although most phenomenologists after Husserl raised strong objections against his idealism, many of them followed his claim for the radical autonomy of philosophy, renaming it, in various contexts, "fundamental ontology" (Heidegger), "ontophenomenology" (Sartre), "ontology of the flesh" (Merleau-Ponty), or, again, "radical ethics" (Levinas).  This kind of foundationalist autonomy seemingly precluded the kind of fruitful and enlightening dialogue with the natural sciences, which is sometimes found in the philosophy of mind.


            Today, many phenomenologists view analytic philosophy as overly formalistic and concerned more with the logic of how we say things about experience and existence than with experience and existence themselves. At the same time, most representatives of analytic philosophy of mind identify the continental phenomenological tradition as either solipsistically introspective (Husserlian transcendentalism) or a literary enterprise, concerned with questions of being (Heidegger) or of rhetoric (poststructuralism). These tendencies, which are undeniably at work in these traditions of thought, turn them towards a certain kind of "nombrilism," be it gnoseological or linguistic.


            From the perspective of the empirical sciences, finally, phenomenology is sometimes viewed as a speculative science of subjectivity, and is, in some quarters, mistaken as a form of traditional introspectionism.  There are also aspects of phenomenology that appear to be anti-scientistic, if not anti-scientific.  Yet it is important to note that despite its anti-naturalism, the general spirit of phenomenology is concerned to make science epistemologically secure.  This is quite clear in Husserl's transcendentalism, and perhaps on a more pragmatic level in the work of Merleau-Ponty, who often appealed to empirical studies in psychology. In the context of advancing the cognitive sciences, the difficult questions are to what extent it is possible to do phenomenology outside of the transcendental stance, and how phenomenology can square with precisely defined empirical protocols. Even though an older generation of phenomenologists, such as Merleau-Ponty, Gurwitsch, and Sartre attempted to create a more concrete dialogue with the empirical sciences, their approaches remained framed by either ontological or methodological concerns.  Different approaches are possible, however. One can take one's phenomenological bearings from specific empirical case studies, or one can attempt to naturalize phenomenology.


Older and more recent attempts towards the beginning of a fruitful dialogue


            At the end of the nineteenth century, two major figures in psychology, Carl Stumpf in Germany, and William James in the United States, endeavored to develop a descriptive analysis of consciousness.  These projects caught Husserl's interest, especially in regard to the understanding of the temporality of consciousness. The attempt to describe different acts of consciousness, for example, attention, memory, and perception in Stumpf's Tonspychologie (1883, 1890), or to point out the multifarious qualities of our becoming-conscious, for example, James' discussions of dreaming, awakening, imagining in the Principles of Psychology (1890), can be considered a first step toward what Don Ihde (1977) later called an “experimental phenomenology.”  These projects represent the continuation of a long-standing tradition in modern philosophy that recognized the continuity between empirical results and philosophical analysis, even though the methodology of their relationship was not always clear.


            In the 1930s and again in the 1960s, close to the center of the developing school of phenomenological thinkers, we find interest in this kind of natural philosophy reawakened in several well-known phenomenological philosophers, Gurwitsch, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.  All of them developed a serious interest in empirical data, be they psychological or psycho-physiological. Gurwitsch (1966) was predisposed to the Gestalt school of psychology, as well as to the insights of James.  Sartre's theory of emotions (1939) and his work on imagination (1936) were deeply influenced by the psychological theories of his time, most notably the work of Janet.  Merleau-Ponty's (1945) understanding of embodiment owes much to his reading of neurologists and psychologists (for example, Head, Von Uexküll, Goldstein, Von Weizsäcker).  These are philosophical phenomenologists who seek out empirical case studies in order to renew, refine, and validate their phenomenological analyses.


            In more recent years, as many phenomenologists turned their attention to less empirical matters, philosophers of mind in the analytic tradition have collaborated with scientists of cognition.  In America and in Great Britain, and more recently on the European continent, analytic philosophers have considered the results of experimental and clinical sciences like neuropsychology, neurophysiology, psychopathology, and developmental psychology. The very same topics that had once motivated the attention of James, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and others – consciousness, embodiment, memory, attention, the perception of others, and so forth – are now drawing renewed interest.  Now, however, our sciences and their technologies have made great advances, especially with respect to the study of the brain.  In addition, computational models of cognition have been proposed, revised, rejected, and corrected, and they continue to be debated in the rich and complex theoretical settings of dynamical systems and neural networks.[2]


Phenomenologists who want to understand cognition are now encountering scientists and other philosophers who are studying the very same issues from a variety of perspectives. At the same time, scientists and non-phenomenological philosophers are encountering phenomenology and the first-person issues that define phenomenological subject matter.  All of this interest creates an exciting opportunity for interdisciplinary cooperation and exchange.



What this journal is about


            It would be unfortunate if this opportunity were not fully exploited to everyone's advantage, and especially to the advantage of science and philosophy in their most original senses.  It would be unfortunate if the issues, the things themselves, were investigated by each of these approaches but in an isolated manner, working side-by-side, but always remaining one sided.  The interdisciplinary goal of this journal requires, first of all a spirit of mutual confidence and reciprocal openness. This is the vision of a growing number of philosophers and scientists.  It was the vision of Francisco Varela, who first proposed the idea for this journal, but whose untimely death this past year prevented him from seeing it come to fruition. 


Varela belonged to a group of scientists and philosophers who defended the idea that phenomenology, rather than remain in its anti-naturalist posture, should open up to the possibility of naturalization (see Petitot et al., 1999).  This remains a proposal that is controversial in the best sense.  It is worthy of serious dispute. In an important sense the question of whether the naturalization of phenomenology is even possible is one that is located at the methodological center of the cognitive sciences, in the same way that the "hard problem" or "explanatory gap" is at the thematic center. 


Faced with fascinating issues that are scientific and philosophical at the same time, issues that call for the use of recently developed and newly emerging methodologies which challenge disciplinary lines, issues that require interpretations which cannot always be accomplished using pre-established categories, and issues that are revelatory concerning the nature of our own existence, this is no time to be dogmatic or overly scholastic.  Yet it is a time to be careful and not to forget what others have already accomplished.  This journal will try to meet all of these challenges within its defined scope.


            Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences is not intended to be a forum for the scholarly interpretation of phenomenological texts (there are other good journals that serve that important purpose).  Rather, it is intended to provide a public space for theoretical, phenomenological, and empirical investigations of the problems that define the subject matter of the cognitive sciences, with special but not exclusive emphasis given to phenomenological and first-person perspectives.  It is also a place for disputations about the issues and the methods that are central to such investigations.  Although we hope to see some of the disputations resolved, our aim is not to end up in an irenic state where every critical argument is smoothed over in an unproductive consensus.  And while we will remain suspicious of that kind of false agreement, we will remain trusting in the way that concepts and themes developed in one field can motivate productive interest and curiosity for the concepts and themes developed in other fields.  In this way, the journal is designed to foster a co-generative, mutual enlightenment between disciplines, which at the same time is knowledgeable about the limitations of each discipline and careful about the possibilities of working across disciplines.


            Each annual Volume will consist of four Issues.  Some Issues will be thematic, and others will be open to various topics. The journal welcomes contributions by phenomenologists, scientists, clinicians, and philosophers who study cognition, broadly defined to include issues that are open to both phenomenological and empirical investigation.  In addition, the journal welcomes discussions of methodological issues that involve the variety of approaches appropriate for addressing these problems.  Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences will also publish critical review articles that address recent work in areas relevant to the connection between empirical results in experimental science and first-person perspective.


The Editors







Dreyfus, H., with Hall, H. (eds). 1982.  Husserl, Intentionality, and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dreyfus, H. 1992.  What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Frege, G. and Husserl, E. 1987. Correspondance. Mauvezin: Trans-Europ-Repress.

Follesdal, D. 1958. Husserl und Frege: ein Beitrag zur Beleuchtung der Entstehung der phanomenologischen Philosophie. Oslo: I. Kommisjon Hos H. Aschehong and Co.

Gurwitsch, A. 1966. Studies in Phenomenology and Psychology. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Haaparanta L. (ed). 1994.  Mind, Meaning and Mathematics Essays on the Philosophical Views of Husserl and Frege.  Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Ihde, D. 1977. Experimental Phenomenology: An Introduction. G. P. Putnam's Sons; reissued 1986, New York: State University of New York Press.

James, W. 1890. The Principles of Psychology.  New York: Dover, 1950.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1945. Phénoménologie de la perception.  Paris: Gallimard; Phenomenology of Perception.  Trans. C. Smith. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

Mohanty, J. N. 1982.  Husserl and Frege. Bloomington:  University of Indiana Press.

Petitot, J., Varela, F., Pachoud, B. and Roy, J-M. (eds). 1999. Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sartre, J-P. 1939. Esquisse d'une theorie phenomenologique des emotions. Paris: Hermann; The Emotions: Outline of a Theory. Trans. B. Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

Sartre, J-P. 1936. L'Imagination. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Spiegelberg, H. 1976. The Phenomenological Movement, Volume 1. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Stumpf, C. 1883 and 1890. Tonspychologie (2 vols). Leipzig.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience.  Cambridge: MIT Press.


[1] The interchange between Frege and Husserl is well known (see, for example, Frege and Husserl, 1987; Follesdal, 1958; Haaparanta, 1994; Mohanty, 1982).  Russell had a copy of Husserl's Logical Investigations with him when he was imprisoned for pacifist activities in 1917, and he later referred to it as "a monumental work" (see Spiegelberg, 1976, I, p. 93n1).

[2] Here we would be remiss not to mention the important work of Hubert Dreyfus (1982, 1992) and others who are associated with his phenomenological critique of artificial intelligence.  Dreyfus is a good representative of a small but strong minority of phenomenologists who continued to engage in both critical and more positive interventions in the cognitive sciences, especially with respect to issues that relate to computational approaches.  With respect to phenomenology, neuroscience, and dynamical systems, for example, the work of Francisco Varela and his colleagues should be mentioned (see Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1992).