Note In this Sept. 2005 revision of lecture notes I created several years ago, I have quoted extensively from two reviews published in Vol 5, No. 2 of the online journal Gestalt!, one by Arie Cohen and the other by myself. (This was an expedient for getting the revision done very quickly the night before I needed to upload it.) The Phenomenology Links page at this site is up do date and a gateway to a wealth of resources and information.


A. Overview and Philosophy of Phenomenology
B. Phenomenological Methods and How to Use Them
C. Examples of Phenomenological Research
D. Additional vocabulary
E. Experience, Communication, and Society


GOAL OF PHENOMENOLOGY: To try to help us get at the world that exists prior to our conceptualizing it. The "LIFE-WORLD" of experience as lived by them. We begin with the "NAIVE," PRE-THEORETICAL, PRE-THEMATIZED, PRE-REFLECTED UPON world of the subject.

Here are a few words of orientation from one of the reviews mentioned above:

For those not familiar with the phenomenological approach, the term refers to a particular group of perspectives and methodologies for carrying out qualitative investigation. These perspectives existed for some time in philosophy before psychological investigators developed a set of methods to go with them. Amodeo Giorgi has termed these methods a "human science" approach, in contrast with the dominantly behavioral and analytically cognitive "natural science" approaches favored by academic psycholology. These two sets of attitudes and methods in regard to psychological investigation, one oriented toward "predicting and controlling behavior," in John B. Watson's words, and the other toward studying consciousness as it is experienced, in oneself or in someone else, are quite different epistemologies.
Clinical epistemologies are another different matter yet, and themselves differ sharply from one another. Dominant on the American scene is the analytic/diagnostic epistemology that represents a mixture of Freud and the medical tradition, while another quite different approach is the existential-phenomenological epistemology represented by such figures as Rollo May, James Bugenthal, R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, and William Glasser. ...As we will see below, Gestalt therapy and person-centered therapy fall into this latter class of existential-phenomenological approaches. In short, these epistemologies present several fundamentally different ways of going about the matter of comprehending human behavior and exprience.


(1) A description of the givens of immediate experience.

(2) An attempt to capture experience in process as lived, through descriptive analysis. It studies how things appear to consciousness or are given in experience, and not how they are in themselves, even if it is known that the given contains more than or is different from what is presented. (For instance, assault victims may experience fear for months or years after the assault, even when no apparent danger exists. What does this fear mean? Where does it come from? How is it experienced? The answers bring us closer to the phenomenon that is lived.

(3) A method of knowing that "begins with the things themselves, that tries to find a 'first opening' on the world free of our perceptions and interpretations, together with a methodology for reducing the interference of our preconceptions.

(4) A method of learning about another person by listening to their descriptions of what their subjective world is like for them, together with an attempt to understand this in their own terms as fully as possible, free of our preconceptions and interferences.

In ordinary life, we "capture" and conceptualize everything, using our preconceptions to turn everything into something other than it actually is, one or two steps removed from direct unfiltered experience. Phenomenology strives to clarify our receiving abilities and rediscover the actuality of what is.

THE EXISTENTIAL DIMENSION: Phenomenology is a way of unfolding the dimensions of human experience&emdash;how we exist in, live in, our world. It examines:

a. What is distinct in each person's experience
b. What is common to the experience of groups of
people who have shared the same events or circumstances

Existence: from the greek word ekstere: means "to stand out toward." Existentialism focuses on reflecting the deepest structure of human experience. Phenomenology developed as a method for exploring that experience.

THE BASIC DATA: EXPERIENCES are the basic data with which the phenomenologist works. The experiences of another can be known. Our job is to make them "visible" and true to the subject's own ways of living them.

THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH: Says that we need to continually examine and reexamine our biases and presuppositions. The attitude is, "I want to understand your world through your eyes and your experiences so far as possible, and together we can probe your experiences fully and understand them.

In this sharing of experiences, in this dialogue, is the "betweenness" we're looking at in phenomenology. It is based on the fact that the experience of others is somehow accessible to us. We can enter into it, into an intimate dialogue. A theme that runs through it is that of interconnectedness.

THE POINT OF VIEW in phenomenology is always the experiencing person (subject, co-investigator.)

BEHAVIOR AND EXPERIENCE: There has been historic controversy in psychology whether the subject matter studied should be consciousness (the internal viewpoint) or behavior (the external viewpoint.


In the review published together with Arie Cohen's, I tried to get into the world of the phenomenologist as follows:

"Edmund Husserl, generally considered the founder of phenomenology, who argued that we can study experience 'rigorously and systematically on the basis of how it appeared to consciousness.' Husserl began with "the phenomenon itself." A later phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, spoke of a "first opening" on things, before any intervening screen of concepts and ideas appears. Developing this ability to let go of our mental chatter, our conceptual categories, and all else that is spinning around in the vortexes of our minds is the goal at which Zen Buddhist training aims—a direct encounter with reality, and nothing more, such as:

"The frog jumps from the lily pad into the pond. Plop."
"But what does it mean?" someone asks.
"Don't you see? The frog jumped. The water splashed, making a sound. Ripples radiated outward from the spot. The frog disappeared. Period."

". . . Husserl also included another element in his phenomenology. In his view, experience includes both those concrete particulars of this situation here now, experienced as naievely as we can experience them, and the categories of meaning to which its things and events belong. A Red Delicious and a Fuji, for example, share the category of meaning that we might call "appleness." (Shades of Plato's pure forms!) These categories of meaning are "structures" in consciousness that are invariant and essential. Husserl used the term "essence," for them, setting the stage for Jean-Paul Sartre's famous existential dictum that "existence precedes essence." Apparently unknown to Husserl, Tibetan Buddhists for hundreds of years had been observing and recording such operations of the mind in a rather sophisticated fashion. In Open Secrets, Walter Truett Anderson (1979) has provided a marvelous summary of this work."


The possibility of describing was viewed by some as essentially identical to the process of communicating. Describing something implies the faith that you can communicate it. (A criticism of that view is that it leaves out the nonverbal dimensions of communication.)

This view that communication is implie in any act of expriencing or knowing something. This led Husserl to the notion of "inter-subjectivity" as a fundamental component of human existence. This can be seen as the other side of Ortega y Gassett's concept of "radical solitude."

The notion that ultimately there is nothing we can communicate but our own experience, even if it is an experience of looking at a phenomenon through a technological instrument and interpreting it, is a very different way of looking at social reality from the modernist view.

The process of paying attention implies a process of communicating, and therefore there is a sort of fundamental existential/social quality to everything we experience. Our experience is based on a faith, as you will, in the possibility of communication. This was a fundamental influence on the development of existential philosophy and psychology in Europe and Humanistic psychology in the U.S.

As events unfolded, existentialism came to be used primarily as a description for an attitude and orientation toward one's own personal experience, (and also, secondarily, toward that of others.) Phenomenology became primarily a set of methods and attitudes for the study of the conscious experience of others. Phenomenology is more purely epistemological and methodological, while existential philosophy and psychology in their various incarnations have a spectrum of other philosophical dimensions.


PRACTICAL QUESTION: How do you apply the idea of phenomenology, of appreciating things in an unbiased manner, in concrete situations?


DESCRIBE, DESCRIBE, DESCRIBE is a key part of the phenomenological orientation. The people in question tell their own story, in their own terms. So "fidelity to the phenomenon as it is lived" means apprehending and understanding it in the lived context of the person living through the situation.

BRACKETING is suspending or setting aside our biases, everyday unerstandings, theories, beliefs, habitual modes of thought, and judgments. Part of the larger process of epoche´.

Since bias is an inevitable part of the study of human beings, phenomenologists deal with it by putting it completely in the situation, by attemping to become aware of theiir preconceptions and biases before beginning the study and while the study is occurring, and then "bracketing" or suspending them so as to be as open as possible to what the subject wants to share.

EPOCHE´: Learning to look at things in a way such that we see only what stands before our eyes, only what we can describe and define.

FACTICITY: a belief in factual characteristics of real objects. In phenomenology, by bracketing our facticity, we transfer our focus from assumed things "out there" to our experience.

"FIRST OPENING": (A direct experience of a person, object, or event, before any of our mental screens of filters change it.)

"PHENOMENOLOGICAL REDUCTION" is (1) an attempt to suspend the observer's viewpoint. (2) Hearing another person's reality and focusing on the central, dominant, or recurring themes which represent the essential qualities or meanings of that person's experience.


INDIVIDUAL PHENOMENOLOGY: Researchers use their own actual and imatinary experiences and others' factual and fictional written accounts and theories to develop a thematic description of a phenomenon. This involves INTROSPECTION: a method of inner observation which involves assuming an external viewpoint toward oneself, stating the facts about oneself as others might if they could observe what the introspector observes.

EMPIRICAL PHENOMENOLOGY: the researcher examines descriptions written by the co-researcher, and thematizes after collecting the descriptions. In "Empirical and hermeneutic approaches to phenomenological research in psychology," (2001), Serge Hein and Wendy Austin write about the use of bracketing in empirical phenomenology:

"Any time a preconception or personal reaction surfaces, the researcher brackets it, sets it aside, and tries to comprehend the person's experience as it is for that person. In this process of "phenomenological reduction," the researcher tries to suspend his or her conceptions of any world other than the subjective world of the person who is being studied. Afterward, the researcher goes through and extracts major themes that are repeated again and again. Then the researcher may or may not discuss these themes with the "co-researcher" for verification or amplification. ("Co-researcher" is a term often used instead of "subject" in phenomenological research.) Finally, the researchers look to see what common themes occur among the various participants in the study, or whether there are clusters of one kind of theme in one group and another kind of theme in another group."

Arie Cohen (2001) describes the steps in this approach as follows:

The steps of analysis involve in this approaches are:
1. Immersion in the data which requires reading the transcript several times.
2. The statements that are relevant to the phenomenon are identified and thematized.
3. These excerpts and themes are used to develop an exhaustive description of the participant experience of the phenomenon. This description is often referred to as " situated structural description" (SSD). If there are more than one participant, then additional SSDs are made for each participant, and they are compared in order to identify shared themes and a synthetic general structural description.
The characteristics of the empirical phenomenology are:
1. Emphasis on commonality that is present in the many diverse appearances of the phenomenon.
2. Reliance on the actual words of the participants
3. Explicitness about the design and the steps taken to obtain the findings.
4. These characteristics leads to verifiability and ability to be replicable.
5. Stressing more on rigor of the approach than on its creative aspects.
6. Acceptance that hermeneutic activity (interpretation) is intrinsic process of research

THEMATIZING is examining the central and subsidiary themes that recur in the report of the co-researcher.

DIALOGICAL PHENOMENOLOGY linvolves interview of the co-researcher, and involving the co-researcher in thematizing during the interview. The researcher may explicitly pay attention to and refer to observations of the co-researcher's behavior as well as to the co-researcher's descriptions of experience. Since my descrption of this process in the aforementioned review is clearer than the previous one in this lecture, I insert it here:

A major phenomenological method which their article leaves out, dialogical phenomenology, is of particular interest here for two reasons. One is that it is the easiest to incorporate into a class or training program, and the other is that it is closer to clinical or counseling intervention than either empirical or hermaneutical phenomenology. One person interviews the other while bracketing his or her own personal reactions as fully as possible, and then after the interview, goes back over the interview notes and involves the co-researcher in the thematizing process. I have found that this usually works marvellously, and often has a profound effect on participants, even when done as a class exercise. The minimim practical time is an hour, although longer is better. The researcher interviews the co-researcher about some matter important to the latter, while bracketing her own feelings and trains of personal association, for twenty minutes. Then the researcher involves the co-researcher in the thematizing process, right there on the spot. After that they reverse roles. (It can also be done as an outside-class task with no time pressure.) In their subsequent writeup, each person describes the co-researcher's experiential world as it was articulated, identifies the major themes, and describes how the process was for him or her, including any difficulties encountered.

In the class assignment to carry out a dialogical (based on the word "dialogue") interview, the interviewee or "co-researcher" chooses a subject of sufficient interest that he or she will be able to talk about it for half an hour. The interviewer or "researcher" then listens to the co-researchers comments and takes notes. Notes may be taken about verbal content and also about emotional expression and body language that amplifies the verbal meaning. The central tool that the researcher will use during the interview is bracketing. Some people can do this easily and others really struggle with it. When something the co-researcher is saying evokes a reaction in you, "put brackets around it and set it aside" for the time being, because your goal is to comprehend the co-researcher's ways of thinking and feeling as fully as possible, and your reactions are likely to get in the way of that.

It is OK to ask questions, or to use Rogerian reflection of content or feeling, but do so sparingly and don't be afraid of a minute or two of silent reflection. If your reaction validates something the co-researcher is saying, a very brief, one-line self disclosure saying something like, "That happened to me with my mother too," is OK, but no more than that. KEEP THE SPOTLIGHT ON THE CO-RESEARCHER. Don't shift it to your reaction even when it's a validating one.

Then after the interview, you will go over the interview together with the co-researcher. You will look for and identify themes in your notes, articulate them, and your co-researcher will say either, "Yes, that's just right," or "Not exactly..." and will help you rephrase the theme to get it as accurate as possible. There will probably be several principal themess that recur again and again in the transcript. Follow the instructions in the assignment in preparing your writeup of the interview.


Cohen states, "Hermeneutic phenomenology is concerned with understanding texts. In this approach the researcher aims to create rich and deep account of a phenomenon through intuition, while focusing on uncovering rather than accuracy, and amplification with avoidance of prior knowledge. In using this approach we accept the difficulty of bracketing. To overcome this difficulty we acknowledge our implicit assumptions and attempt to make them explicit. In addition, we accept the notion that there may be many possible perspectives on a phenomenon, like when we turn a prism, one part becomes hidden and another part opens. Hermeneutic avoids method for method' s sake and does not have a step by step method or analytic requirements. The only guidelines are the recommendation for a dynamic interplay among six research activities: commitment to an abiding concern, oriented stance toward the question, investigating the experience as it is lived, describing the phenomenon through writing and rewriting, and consideration of parts and whole."

My review added, "Heidegger's phenomenology took a hermaneutical turn. In a sense, he denied the possibility of a naive "direct grasp" of the phenomena themselves, arguing that we necessarily interpret everything in terms of our language and experience. And so, in trying to understand another person, I need to look at my own preconceptions and be as explicit about them as I can. I may move back and forth between someone's description of her experience and my own, and refer to literature and what others have written about similar experiences. This dialectical interplay of sets of experiences is what is called 'hermaneutical.'

A Hermaneutic approach can be added to the Individual Phenomenology method and can enrich it.



This study by Frank Siroky used empirical phenomenology, the analysis of interview transcripts.
"We break it down into the particular meaning units.

Again and again the asthmatics used the words 'alone, apart, separate, suffocating, don't.'

We began to ask, "Is asthma the cause of all this? Or is there a style of life that is deeper? We might spend several hours going over one interview.

"Comparing two transcripts, we find that one woman says, 'The asthma governs my life.' Another person talks about her life, of which asthma is one dimension.

We begin to discern how people STRUCTURE THEIR EXPERIENCE --patterns that hang together.


(Frank Siroky)"As a consultant, I began using the methods of traditional industrial psychology. Make changes in the workingplace, and as a result, motivation and productivitgy will increase. It was a nice model, paid well, and it didn't work.

In Scandanavia, I visited institutes that viewed making changes as a DIALOGUE. A dialogic relationship among all the people in their workingplaces. QWL and industrial democracy. Critics said, "You're preaching socialism." They replied, "No, we're preaching democracy."

Now, on the pages of every business magazine we find such models, written about as new ways organizations can develop to become moree competitive, etc.

New models: How we can help people in the workingplace to change their own lives.

When I use phenomenology in consulting, I spend time walking around the plant talking to people asking them what their experience of their working life is. Then we combine that wifrom different levels and parts of the organization have a chance to share their experiences."

Focus groups: another kind of applied phenomenology. David Van Nuys has done a lot of these for corporate clients.


(Read from separate notes.)



(From dialogue with Art Warmoth.) The notion is that social reality is always composed of persons in society, as though that were a single word. Not as if persons are clumped together in society, but rather it is a way of describing a fundamental structure of social reality. People are always in some sense in a society, and are also always in a situation.

Closed and open attitudes. Closed: an approach of constant narrowing or zeroing in on a phenomenon. Open: Consists of gaps as well as "filled" sections, and we remain open to notice what happens and evolves. Social psychologist Milton Rokeach studied this in detail.

It's important to pay attention to our experience, and especially to others' experience because in a sense that's the main source of data available to us. Sometimes it's about all we've got.
In order to begin the study of any situation or social issue, it is fundamental to try to understand the experience of the people who are caught in the situation you are concerned with. This includes thoughts, feelings, sensations&emdash;the whole thing. Studying people's behavior is important but it is not enough, because it leaves out important dimensions of experience and meaning that lead to that behavior.
This is very different from placing our primary emphasis on measuring objective behavior. What's happening with reinforcers and discriminative stimuli do not tell us all there is to know about a situation, or the person's history in regard to it.
Some examples of this from the family therapy literature. In some families, for instance, there is no room for the expression of real emotion if it does not fit the prescriptions of the family's dominant emotional theme or themes. If what's allowed is only anger, assertiveness, or a deadpan front, the overt expression of tenderness or affection may not be allowed. Paying attention only to the behavior can leave out centrally important dimensions of people's inner experience. Similar dynamics occur on the larger social stage. Or take another example&emdash;"crossing generation boundaries." In this case the child is often made to feel as if he or she is responsible for the adults' feelings and well being. Again, there is much more than observable behavior going on. This is not to deny the importance of behavior, but to emphasize that it is not the whole story.
We could make the interesting observation that the dynamics observed in dysfunctional families are directly correlated with a set of dysfunctional assumptions about the relative values of subjective and objective truths. We can trace this back to the start of the moder period in the 17th and 18th century, starting with Descartes' argument that mind and body are distinct and separate, rather than interrelated.
The realms of subjective knowing and objectively measurable knowing are largely different realms of reality, and the upshot of the development of this kind of dualism ended up being a distinct preference for looking at objectively observable behaviors, whether we are paying attention to organizational, political, or family systems. This has, however, led to a number of significant dead ends, and now is beginning to change.

In more traditional cultures, there tends to be a widely shared set of assumptions about the meaning of various behaviors. This is less true in the pluralistic western industrial cultures of America and Northern Europe which have a high degree of social and cultural mobility. With no implication of relatively good or bad, right or wrong in this case, in traditional cultures there is more of a shared history of common experience and shared meanings. A "community of meanings" is taken for granted by most of the members of the society. But speaking about some of the shared experiences that are involved may be forbidden, such as in cultures where women are severely repressed.

In areas like physics and chemistry, objective science and the techbnology built on it is highly appropriate in a broad variety of circumstances. But we have tended to apply this model also to the social sciences where it fits some phenomena and situations and not others, and partly as a result have ended up creating a lot of organizational systems that are pretty dysfunctional in terms of their ability to meet human needs.

In some quarters there appear to be substantial restructurings going on, in which we realize that listening to peoples' subjective experiences in regard to the conditions society is creating for them is extremely important. Part of this involves looking at questions of value and values as a central issue for investigation, instead of dominant social groups blindly and automatically assuming that their own values will produce good lives and experiences for everyone. In this view, the right way to do psychology is to look at what's going on in people's experience as well as how they behave, and before you run out trying to change anything, and especially social policies that everyone has to live with, you make sure you understand as fully as possible the history of events that led people to their present behavior, positions, and experiences of the world. You find out what they're thinking and feeling.

In a polarized situation where people are in conflict, there are two general choices:

Decide that your side is in fact correct and retreat to a position of might makes right, that war or violence of some sort is a legitimate way of resolving the issue. This is basically taking a win-lose position--that "my side has gotta win."
An alternative is to assume that we're dealing with an incomplete understanding of the situation, and find out how it looks to those on the other side, what their experience of the situation is. Notice the profound difference between "We have an incomplete understanding of the situation," and "We have a correct understanding of the situation." There is the ever-so-common tendency (to which I still fall victim sometimes myself) to hear one person tell about a situation, and then move toward action without taking time to listen to the other side or sides. Phenomenology reminds us to do our best to understand the other person's experience, rather than jumping to a conclusion based on incomplete information.