Part of teaching the descriptive phenomenological psychological method is to assist students in grasping their previously unrecognized assumptions regarding the meaning of “science.” This paper is intended to address a variety of assumptions that are encountered when introducing students to the descriptive phenomenological psychological method pioneered by Giorgi. These assumptions are: 1) That the meaning of “science” is exhausted by empirical science, and therefore qualitative research, even if termed “human science,” is more akin to literature or art than methodical, scientific inquiry; 2) That as a primarily aesthetic, poetic enterprise human scientific psychology need not attempt to achieve a degree of rigor and epistemological clarity analogous (while not equivalent) to that pursued by natural scientists; 3) That “objectivity” is a concept belonging to natural science, and therefore human science ought not to strive for objectivity because this would require “objectivizing” the human being; 4) That qualitative research must always adopt an “interpretive” approach, description being seen as merely a mode of interpretation. These assumptions are responded to from a perspective drawing primarily upon Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, but also upon Eagleton’s analysis of aestheticism.
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Megill (1985) argues that the modernist and postmodernist work of Heidegger Gadamer Foucault and Derrida are linked by the shared sensibilities of aestheticism and romanticism. Both are clearly important; however this brief paper will focus primarily on the implications of aestheticism for qualitative psychological research.
Critics such as Bernstein (1983) have observed that Gadamer’s critiques tend to confuse science with scientism noting “Gadamer tends to rely on an image of science which the postempiricist philosophy and history of science have called into question;” whereas “It is not science that is the main target of Gadamer’s criticism but scientism. But Gadamer often seems to suggest that Method (and science) is never sufficient to reveal truth . . . [and] there is something misleading about this contrast” (p. 168). Arguably Gadamer’s account fails to do justice to the natural sciences as they are actually practiced because from a Husserlian perspective he neglects the intuitive dimension of the discovery process in empirical research and mischaracterizes science as purely logical/mechanical.
Scheffler (1967) argued that this subjectivism is in fact a species of idealism in that “The central idealistic doctrine of the primacy of mind over external reality is thus resuscitated once again this time in a scientific context” (p. 74).
Stam (1992) reflects upon the naïve adoption of positivist principles by psychologists when he observes “The effects of positivism are insidious. Perhaps a more kindly description is that they serve as an unspoken grammar. We have taken in the residues of positivism (both logical and prelogical) with our education and we no longer acknowledge or recognize the roots of our methodologies” (p. 18).
Natanson (1973) notes: “By ‘naïve’ Husserl means unreflectively accepting the world as real and as being what it appears to common sense to be. Rather than being a lack of philosophy naïveté is a hidden philosophy at least in elemental form. In other terms the philosophy of common sense may be called ‘naïve realism.’ When psychology is grounded in philosophical naïveté its placement of the psyche is ‘in’ the world or ‘in’ egos which are empirically present as incarnate fellow men” (p. 47).
As Jagtenberg (1983) observed regarding empiricism a “sociologically naïve view . . . is deeply entrenched in the standard scientific epistemology that is communicated to young scientists during their socialization” (p. 69). Stam (1992) similarly remarked “The effects of positivism are insidious. Perhaps a more kindly description is that they serve as an unspoken grammar. We have taken in the residues of positivism (both logical and prelogical) with our education and we no longer acknowledge or recognize the roots of our methodologies” (p. 18). I am arguing the same sort of unexamined assumptions are often present for those on the other side of the philosophical spectrum were predominantly influenced by hermeneutic or postmodern theory.
As Kisiel (1970) observed “Each individual scientist is a scientist in the essential sense of this word only as a member of the open community which provides the tradition of knowledge upon which he bases his own research and where his contributions are verified and take their proper place. The fulfillment of his own work is his particular goal which in turn serves as the means for further scientific projects on the parts of others. The current ‘body’ of science is a unity of meaning which is the specific raw material for further developments. The life of science is precisely this interdependent progression of research and researchers extending across the generations and moving toward its infinite telos” (p. 70).
A similar case is van Manen (2006) who invokes Heidegger to argue that a genuinely phenomenological approach is a dynamic creative endeavor that cannot be contained within a “preconceived method” (p. 720).
As Gray (2004) notes “Husserl claims that each person as person is defined by a particular environmental context integral to his or her personality . . . this environmental context helps shape the way the person thinks feels and acts and these thoughts feelings and actions obtain their specific meanings only within this context. Moreover . . . a shared life world is the prerequisite for mutual comprehension and community” (p. 316). Gurwitsch (1974) observed that in the context of phenomenological psychology “Given a certain cultural world as the life-world of a sociohistorical group the task is to find and to lay bare the acts of consciousness which in their systematic concatenation and intertexture make this specific world possible as their correlate. Answering this question for a particular cultural world amounts to understanding that world from within by referring it to the mental life in which it originates.” (p. 24)
Merleau-Ponty (1968) characterizes perceptual faith in the following way: “It is the prepossession of a totality which is there before one knows how and why whose realizations are never what we would have imagined them to be and which nonetheless fulfills a secret expectation within us since we believe in it tirelessly” (p. 42). This is not to deny the presence of “different surrounding worlds of culture” acknowledged by Husserl (1973 p. 133) nor to argue dogmatically that the same object cannot be understood in multiple different ways.
As Lawlor (2003) observes Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of perceptual faith can be read as a commentary on Husserl’s Principle of all Principles in Ideas I (p. 105). Lawlor (2003) points out that one of the titles Merleau-Ponty considered for The Visible and the Invisible was “The Origin of Truth” (p. 104).
Mohanty (1976) noted “the sciences (or Epistēmē in general) are regarded by Husserl as a sort of transformation (in the sense of idealization) of this Lebenswelt” (p. 138).