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• Derived from the Greek ‘phainomenon’ – ‘appearance’, i.e that which
shows itself. Philosophers generally refer to phenomena as the
appearance of things, how they manifest in the light of our
awareness, as contrasted with the things themselves as they really
• Phenomenology studies our lived experience – our thoughts and
perceptions, emotions and feelings, memories and fantasies, bodily
sensations and embodied actions.
• It aims to describe experience, rather than explain it. It asks “what”
and “how” our experience is, rather than “why” or “what caused it”
• Phenomenology questions the existence of objective reality outside our
conscious awareness of things. It also invites us to question our assumptions and
biases implicit in our conclusions about how we understand life and being-in- theworld.
• Phenomenologists believe that ‘true reality’ is both unknown and unknowable to
us in a purely objective sense, as it is linked to our human need to construct
meaning from experience. What we perceive as reality, is inextricably linked to
our mental processes, own socio-cultural and historical experiences, and our
innate capacity to construct meaning. Our experience of the world is the
interaction between the ‘raw matter’ of the world and our mental faculties.
• In the context of counselling and psychotherapy, phenomenology aims “to offer
the means for individuals to examine, confront, clarify and reassess their
understanding of life, the problems encountered throughout their life, and the
limits imposed upon the possibilities inherent in being-in-the-world” (Spinelli,
Origins of phenomenology
• The term ‘phenomenology’ was coined and used by different philosophers (Kant,
Hegel, Marx) as early as the mid-eighteenth century but the philosophical school
known as phenomenology originated in the beginning of the 20th century.
• Some of the predecessors of phenomenology were:
- Rene Descartes (1596–1650) – formulated a modern version of the mind body
problem by separating consciousness from physical substance and posited that the
only thing we cannot doubt is our own mind / thinking processes: “Cogito ergo
- Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) – posited that our mind cannot know a thing as it is
in itself (noumenon), but can only know it as it appears to us (phenomenon). In
other words we only have direct access to phenomena (mental experiences of
things), but not to noumena (the real concrete things in themselves)
Origins of phenomenology (cont.)
- Franz Brentano (1838–1917) – introduced the notion of
intentionality, from Latin ‘intendare’ – ‘to stretch forward’.
He coined the term intentionality to clarify his assertion that there is a
real physical world outside our consciousness, and that all
consciousness is always directed towards the real world in order to
interpret it in a meaningful way (Brentano, 1973).
Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) who is considered the founder of
phenomenology was influenced by Brentano and developed his ideas
Edmund Husserl
Not the first to coin the term but considered the "father" of the philosophical
movement known as phenomenology.
Born in 1859, into a Jewish family in the town of Prossnitz in Moravia, then a
part of the Austro – Hungarian Empire.
His initial interests were in mathematics and the natural sciences, including
psychology. Influenced by Brentano, he became interested in human
consciousness and perception, and in the idea that there are truths that the
natural sciences rely on, but which they don’t themselves account for. He
developed phenomenology as a way to examine human consciousness in
more depth without making the assumptions made by the natural sciences.
Appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1916.
Martin Heidegger was his principal assistant and later provided his own
contributions to phenomenology.
Husserl’s ideas
• ‘Reality’
is not directly available to us; we only have access through phenomena (our subjective
experience of the world)
• The natural sciences cannot provide a complete account of reality, they don’t account for our
lived experience.
• We have to ‘bracket’ the natural attitude in order to study phenomena without assumptions. We
have to perform what Husserl called phenomenological reduction – suspending our normal
attitude or assumptions by ‘bracketing’ them at least temporarily – in order to study phenomena
and describe our experience of them properly
• Intentionality – our awareness is directional, and already part of a worldview. Our consciousness
is always consciousness of something; consciousness is directed towards something, whether it
is an external phenomenon like sounds and light; or internal phenomena like thoughts and
• A subject (ego) has a way of experiencing (noesis) an appearance (noema) of something
Noema is the object (the what) that we direct our attention towards and focus upon
Noesis is the process of our experiencing, the mode (the how) through which we define an object
e.g. Past experience – we remember the events (noema) and the way we experienced them (the
Phenomenological method
The task of phenomenology according to Husserl is to arrive at more
adequate knowledge of ‘the things themselves’ by stripping away as much as
possible the interpretational layers of our experience. He proposed a
phenomenological method of investigation which could be applied to all
analyses of experience.
• Step A “ The rule of Epoche” – from Greek “suspension of judgment”
‘bracket’ / suspend our assumptions, ideas, theories, usual explanations
(‘the natural attitude’)
• Step B “The rule of Description” – describe, don’t explain; focus on our
immediate impressions, and avoid trying to make theoretical sense of them
• Step C “The rule of Horizontalisation (the Equalization Rule) – avoid
placing impressions in a hierarchy of significance, and treat them all initially
as of equal significance
(Spinelli, 2011)
Existential phenomenology
Husserl called his form of phenomenology pure or ‘transcendental’
Existential phenomenology is another branch that places different
emphasis on issues of subjective experience.
• Developed by Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) who was an assistant to
Husserl at Freiburg University, Germany.
• Not so much what we believe, but how we come to believe it ie:
context and personal history .
• Heigegger’s work stemmed from works of Nietzche and Kierkegaard
and is based on philosophical notions of death anxiety,
meaninglessness, isolation, freedom of thought and choice, and
personal responsibility. It focuses on how our anxiety about these
core “truths” can impinge on our experience of the world.
Existential phenomenology
Heiddeger did not agree with the idea of the phenomenological
reduction. He argued that it is not possible to bracket our assumptions
/perception of the world because we are already inescapably and
concretely positioned in the world and cannot be isolated from a
specific history or a particular experience or from the language we use
to describe experience.
He used phenomenology to try to understand everyday experience as a
way to answer the question ‘what is being’.
According to Heidegger we are all beings in the world and exist in states
of :
• Authenticity – being able to accept our mortality, the fluidity of
existence and our responsibility to make choices.
• Inauthenticity – refusing to acknowledge the above and having to
create mental defences in order to do so.
Phenomenological psychotherapy
• Therapist works in the here and now.
• Focus is on the clients’ interpretations of themselves and their own
experiences of relationships with others in the world.
• Belief that over-emphasis of technique can become an obstacle to
understanding the client.
• Not looking for a “cure or behaviour modification” although behavioural
change can be a bi-product of the therapeutic experience.
• Neurotic and psychotic defences are seen as blocks against a client’s fears
of fundamental existential anxieties (death, meaninglessness, choice, etc.).
• Therapist’s role is to help stimulate their client to explore what really
matters to him or her.
• Client as autonomous being.
Phenomenological psychotherapy
• Therapist as an empathic and neutral attendant.
• Questioning should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.
• Anxiety is a fundamental “given” of being-in-the-world.
• For phenomenological psychotherapists, sources of human conflict stem
from the core “givens” of existence such as death, freedom, isolation and
meaninglessness, rather than from instinctive biological demands not
being met or being in conflict with the demands of others.
• Helping clients recognise and understand their anxieties and the choices
they have to deal with is the focus of therapy, rather than trying to
eliminate “symptoms”.
Further reading:
• Binswanger, L. (1963) Being in the World: Selected Papers of Ludwig Binswanger. New York:
Harper Torchbooks.
• Boss, M. (1979) Existential Foundations of Medicine and Psychology. Northvale, N.J: Jason
• Buber, M. (1970) I and Thou 2nd edn: Edinbourgh: T&T Clark.
• Cerbone, D. (2006). Understanding Phenomenology. Acumen Publishing.
• Cohn, H.W. (1997) Existential Thought and Therapeutic Practice: An Introduction to Existential
Psychotherapy. London: Sage.
• Cooper, M. (2003) Existential Therapies. London: Sage.
• Frankl, V. (1980) The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications to Logotherapy. London:
• Laing, R.D. and Esterson, A. (1964) Sanity, Madness and the Family. Harmondsworth:Penguin.
• Spinelli, E. (2011). The Interpreted World: An Introduction to Phenomenological Psychology.
London: Sage.
• Spinelli, E. (2006). Demystifying Therapy. London: Constable.
• Yallom, I. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.