Phenomenology: The Study of Consciousness

Art Warmoth

Psy 307


Approaching an understanding of self-reflective human consciousness requires us to confront a fundamental paradox:  On the one hand, consciousness lives in the eternal present.  That is to say, human consciousness as such is uniquely personal.  It is the most intimate ground and foundation of our personhood, of our life itself.  On the other hand, human knowledge–that is to say, what human consciousness does–is essentially social or intersubjective.


Phenomenology can be most simply described as the disciplined (or systematic) study (description) of human consciousness (human experience).  Since consciousness itself is the context of all explanations, it cannot strictly speaking be explained, only described and interpreted.  Explanations in the strict sense are the province of objective natural science.  The patterns described by phenomenology (and psychoanalysis) can lead to insights and to plausible predictions of future behavior.  But these predictions only make sense on the basis of our capacity for empathy, for understanding the reasons some potential action makes sense.


There are two primary domains of phenomenological description.  The first, which was pioneered by Edmund Husserl, focuses on the rich description of the eternal present (the here and now).  Its method is based on “bracketing.”  This method has been widely used by humanistic and transpersonal psychologists to better understand the experience of clients.  The other approach is phenomenology as historical interpretation.  This approach has been less clearly circumscribed as method, but it has been called “phenomemology” by philosophers including G. W. F. Hegel  (1977) and Ernst Cassirer (1944).  It also appears as the history of ideas, or of consciousness, and indeed it is a dimension of all historical study.


Bracketing (epoché)

            Bracketing requires the suspension of preconceptions and concentration on the immediate contents of awareness.  This approach has been widely used to study psychological states such as loneliness, depression, and joy.  As outlined in Figure 1, we can define three basic domains of the phenomenological field:


1.     The Subjective This is all of the perceptions and knowledge that belongs to oneself alone.  These may be experiences that are so amorphous or chaotic that we cannot find the words (or other symbolic forms) to communicate them.  Or they may be insights that are so personal that we choose not to communicate them.


2.     The Intersubjective.  This realm exists within the larger framework of lived life and it is the realm that is created by the human capacity for communication, primarily symbolic communication.  It is the basis for the construction of all human knowledge and the creation of all human relationships and institutions.  This fact is the foundation of social

philosophy or the history of consciousness.  But it is remarkable that the importance of this domain has been so little noticed in theorizing about social phenomena.


3.   The Objective.   This is a special realm within the intersubjective realm that includes the natural sciences, and it is the realm that has been honed to a fine art by the intellectual life of modern humans (mainly men, actually, and including science, philosophy, and scholarship in general).  Its salient feature is that the facts on which it is based are observable by more than one observer, and all adequately prepared observers report essentially the same observations.


From a psychological or sociological perspective, the intersubjective point of view is the most important.  This is partly because it is the basis of all human cultural life (including objective scientific culture), partly because it is the most overlooked of the three domains, and partly because it is the most challenging domain in that it faces

psychology with the challenge of understanding the dynamics of effective communication.


The key to understanding the significance of the intersubjective domain is what José Ortega y Gasset (1957) calls “the compresence of the other.“  This concept can be explained quite simply by considering what me mean by the “presence” of a physical object–an apple, a chair, an automobile.  When we observe any of these, there is a side that is present, and a side that is compresent.  That is, a side (and an interior) that can become present if we move around the object (or take it apart).  However, we are also unshakably convinced that there is an interiority to other persons that we know is there, even if we can never observe it directly.  The organized system characteristics or our selves and of others are the result of an evolutionary history that was shaped by the survival value of effective symbolic communication.


Historical Interpretation

All of our psychological functioning–perceiving, knowing, feeling, willing–is immersed in a cultural system that is shaped by our participation in a historical stream of shared consciousness that is by our personal and collective evolutionary history.  (Ortega y Gasset, 1961) That historical stream of shared consciousness functions as a coherent, organized, constantly developing symbolic system that is transpersonal (that is, social, including but not limited to the spiritual) in character.


.        According to Clifford Geertz (1973), the culminating phase of human biological evolution was intimately intertwined with the development of language and other basic forms of culture:


            The Pleistocene period, with its rapid and radical variations in climate, land formations, and vegetation, has long been recognized to be a period in which conditions were ideal for the speedy and efficient evolutionary development of man; now it seems also to have been a period in which a cultural environment increasingly supplemented the natural environment in the selection process so as to further accelerate the rate of hominid evolution to an unprecedented speed. The Ice Age appears not to have been merely a time of receding brow ridges and shrinking jaws, but a time in which were forged early all those characteristics of man's existence which are most graphically human: his thoroughly encephelated nervous system, his incest-taboo-based social structure, and his capacity to create and use symbols. The fact that these distinctive features of humanity emerged together in complex interaction with one another rather than serially as so long supposed is of exceptional importance in the interpretation of human mentality, because it suggests that man's nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it positively demands that he do so if it is going to function at all. . . .A cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an intrinsically talented though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity. (pp. 67-68)


Figure 2 provides an overview of the stages of the evolution of human consciousness, viewed in terms of the evolution of evermore complex forms of communication technology.  We are now in a new major stage of human cultural evolution driven by electronic communication and information processing technology.  We still are far from knowing what it all means.


The cultural worldview of any particular society must be learned by its members.  In order to become a functioning member of a particular society, a child must learn something about all or most of the dimensions of its richness and complexity within a remarkably short period of time.  The developmental challenge of the individual is to learn to participate in and master a reasonable repertoire of these forms.  A rough stage developmental model of how this works can be correlated with Erik H. Erikson’s (1963) model of psychosocial stages, as presented in Figure 3.


Even in a relatively homogeneous culture, it is important to note the qualitative (phenomenological) differences in the experience of participants at different levels of psychosocial development.  Berger and Luckmann, in The Social Construction of Reality (1967), make a useful distinction between primary and secondary socialization.  Primary socialization takes place in the early stages of life and is mediated by the family.  This is the pre-genital phase of development that Freud and other psychoanalysts have explored extensively.   Psychoanalysis has demonstrated that the tacit frameworks of personal identity laid down in this developmental process are largely unconscious, or at least nonverbal.


Secondary acculturation is the process of initiation into adult identity and roles.  In traditional societies, it is accomplished through a variety of initiation rituals, while in modern societies it is largely mediated by the educational system, with considerable assistance from the media and peer relationships.  While childhood and adult identity in traditional societies are continuous, the demands of adult identity in the postmodern world lead to many discontinuities.  Robert Jay Lifton (1993) has advocated a “protean self” as the appropriate postmodern model, a theme echoed by Kenneth Gergen (1991) and Walter Truett Anderson.


In the postmodern world, many value frameworks that are taken for granted in traditional cultures become debatable: family values, sexual mores, ideas of authority, rules of commerce, standards of fairness and justice.  Secondary acculturation involves developing the knowledge and skills to be able to participate effectively in these debates and their consequent choices.  One of the metachoices facing citizens of the postmodern world is whether those choices will be made by democratic or authoritarian strategies of system self-organization.  Democratic systems require active participation in that process.  Authoritarian systems offer the option of choosing not to choose–choice is left to someone else who is presumed to “know better.”


Humanistic and transpersonal psychology have an important role to play in the development of a more democratic and humane social order.  The key to this is to develop the skills which Carl Rogers called as “empathic listening” and “unconditional positive regard.”   In a political context, the former translates into active listening in dialogue and debate; the latter becomes acceptance and inclusiveness.

















Figure 1.  The Phenomenological Field







Neuro-Psychological Tools  

Symbolic Tools




Reptilian Brain

Mammalian Brain











Writing, Mathematics









Tribal Groups







Renaissance, Reformation


Industrial Revolution





Natural Sciences

Academic Disciplines

Parliamentary Democracy
Mass Media (print–>electric)



Classical Civilization


Modern Civilization



Conscious Evolution

Electronic Info Processing
& Communication
Mass Media (electronic)


Ecological  Systems Awareness

Postmodern Globalizing Society





Erikson's Stages

Cultural Development Stages

1. Trust vs. Basic Mistrust
2. Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt

Stage 1. (Preoedipal & Oedipal stages.) Learns language (discursive) and basic repertoire of presentational (narrative & imaginal) symbolic forms


3. Initiative vs. Guilt
4. Industry vs Inferiority

Stage 2. Consolidation of symbolic skills & worldview


5. Identity vs. Role Diffusion
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation

Stage 3. Initiation into adult roles & sexuality


7. Generativity vs. Stagnation
8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair

Stage 4. Consolidation, modification & transformation of the cultural repertoire

Figure 3. Erikson's Stages & the Development of Cultural Identity




Anderson, Walter Truett. (1997). The Future of the Self. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam


Berger, Peter L.  & Luckmann, Thomas. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/anchor


Cassirer, Ernst. (1944). An Essay on Man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press


Erikson, Erik H. (1963). Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton


Geertz, Clifford (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books


Gergen, Kenneth. (1991) The Saturated Self. New York: Basic Books.


Hegel, G. W. F. (1977). Phenomenology of Spirit (tr. A. V. Miller). Oxford: Clarendon.


Lifton, Robert Jay. (1993). The Protean Self. New York: Basic Books


Ortega y Gasset, José. (1957). Man and People (tr. Willard R. Trask).  New York: W. W. Norton.


Ortega y Gasset, José. (1961).  History as a System and other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History (tr. Helene Weyl, William C. Atkinson, Eleanor Clark).   New York: W. W. Norton.