Can Phenomenology Be Naturalized?

Maria Scott-Wittenborn
Serendip/SciSoc Group
Summer, 2006

The project of naturalizing phenomenology has recently received a great deal of attention from both philosophers and cognitive scientists.  While the definition of 'naturalization' varies slightly depending on context, the process can generally be understood as that by which all aspects of phenomenology are made coherent and fully compatible within the explanatory framework of the natural sciences.[1] Phenomenologists traditionally have been ambivalent at best[2] about any attempts to reduce the phenomenology to a type of science.  Endorsing the project of naturalization appears to necessitate the acceptance of the epistemological thesis that empirical science is the "best way to acquire knowledge of every aspect of the world, including ourselves,"[3] and the metaphysical thesis that "the world is comprised solely of the kinds of objects, properties, and causal relations posited by scientific theories."[4] Neither assertion rests confortably with phenomenologists and the acceptance of these rigid epistemological and metaphysical assumptions is problematic.  The theses imply the acceptance of "an objective, scientific view of the world that makes no ultimate appeal to the irreducible character of experience,"[5] a claim that is fundamentally at odds with phenomenological views.  The inherently perspectival nature of experience has been a basic tenet of phenomenology since Husserl's time.  Moreover, it is doubtful that one could translate the purely descriptive account of the world that the phenomenologists strive for into data that would be intelligible within the explanatory framework of the natural sciences. Indeed, the "general consensus amongst phenomenologists that, in studying the structure of experience, one discovers that empirical scientific knowledge does not comprise our most fundamental understanding of the world."[6]  Phenomenology does not deny the importance of the empirical sciences; rather, it asserts that science is no more - and no less - than an effective way of conceptually organizing and negotiating the world as it appears to us.[7]  The great mistake is to assume that the scientific interpretation is the actual reality of our world, and not a secondary interpretation of a more fundamental perceptual experience of the world around us.

Clearly, the naturalization of phenomenology is not embraced by all scientists or phenomenologists.  Why, then, is there the impulse to even attempt the project of naturalization? The primary motivating factor has been the increasingly common contention among cognitive scientists that "a successful scientific theory of cognition must account for phenomenality, that isÉfor the fact that for a whole set of cognitive systems, and for the human one in particular, things have appearances."[8]  There is currently a group of perceptual experiences for which cognitive science is unable to provide an account.  Phenomenology does not provide explanatory accounts of phenomena; however it does provide a descriptive account of the very phenomenality that cognitive scientists are interested in pursuing through naturalization. While phenomenologists can voice specific complaints about the ways in which cognitive science misappropriates their data, cognitive scientists are little bothered by any disruptions their influence might cause within phenomenology.  They are primarily concerned with providing "objective, naturalistic models of cognitive processes in order to explain the phenomenology"[9] in terms that are coherent with the natural sciences.             

It is not clear that unless some re-working of the demands made by naturalism takes place that such a project can be successfully completed without phenomenology being completely subsumed by cognitive science.  Several approaches to the problem of translating between phenomenology and cognitive science have been suggested.  Some favor treating the translation process as one of "reciprocal movement"[10] between the two disciplines in which "phenomenological descriptions are fed into cognitive science and reinterpreted in the process, so as to accord with naturalism."[11]  Such an approach accomplishes the basic task of importing phenomenological data into cognitive science, but it does not make any effort to address the concerns that many have about whether phenomenological data is actually compatible within cognitive science.  It does not question the standard definition of naturalization.  Any perceived incompatibilities are resolved at the expense of phenomenology while the underlying metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of naturalism remain unexamined and unchanged. 

A second, more creative approach uses the concept of embodied cognition to frame phenomenological data in a way that allows for it to be successfully integrated into cognitive science.  Unsurprisingly, the proponents of the approach are themselves phenomenologists.  As such they are more sensitive to the philosophical problems that naturalization entails and draw on the work of phenomenologist and psychologist Merleau-Ponty to provide a model for effectively expressing phenomenological insights in biologically plausible terms.  The approach explicitly addresses the concern that the nature of phenomenology may not be amenable to naturalization, noting that

.... phenomenology is not simply an analysis of subjective experience (as may be attempted by cognitive science) but is a methodology whose goals and techniques may be at odds with those of cognitive science. In phenomenology, cognitive science itself is a second order expression of a more fundamental reality, which is the world as it is immediately perceived. In attempting to appreciate how cognitive science is intelligible in this context, one cannot simply adopt standard cognitive science techniques but one needs an alternative approach.[12]


While acknowledging that the issues phenomenologists have with the naturalization do not exist for those who do not find claims that science enjoys an epistemological primacy over all other modes of inquiry, the proponents of phenomenology maintain that

The practical success of science does not preclude scrutiny of its foundations and it is the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, with its emphasis on the primacy of the lived world and the derivative status of the objective world, that provides a technique to understand this foundation.[13]


This approach does not deny the possibility of successful translation between phenomenology and cognitive science.  In fact, it emphasizes the need to "not confuse the phenomenological fact that the right description of our intentional relation to the world denies that we are private, inner subjects, with the scientific fact that this intentional relation is physically realized within the brain."[14]  By placing equal emphasis on preserving the phenomenological accuracy of lived experience with the need for a neurobiologically plausible theory of mind, such an approach avoids sacrificing the accuracy of the phenomenological insights or the ultimate compatibility of those insights within the framework of the natural sciences.  Maintaining this balance was a challenge that Merleau-Ponty was keenly aware of over fifty years ago and it is present in the contemporary phenomenologists approach that incorporates the traditional phenomenological goals with the contemporary hopes of cognitive science that although phenomenology is concerned with the perceptual internal experiences of the individual that it can be reconciled to our contemporary understanding that "the brain represents the physical substrate of all human experience, the models discussed try to address the question of how the physical processes of the brain result in these experiences."[15]

The significant difference between the two approaches discussed is that the initial approach functioned on the underlying assumption that the empirical sciences enjoy epistemological primacy over phenomenology.  It assumed that any qualifiers that allowed for the preserving of the phenomenological observations to be anything but a secondary consideration constituted an unacceptable compromise that would yield results incompatible with the framework of the natural sciences.  The second approach which considered phenomenology and empirical science to be equally important in informing the naturalization process provides a very different model for attempting this sort of naturalization of philosophy.

[1] Roy, Petitot, Pachoud &Varela. "Beyond the Gap: An Introduction to Naturalizing Phenomenology," from Naturalizing Phenomenology eds. Roy & Petitot. (Stanford University Press, 1999)

[2] (Edmund Husserl, the founding figure of phenomenology was adamantly against naturalism, asserting that "We are fighting against the naturalization of consciousness.")

[3] Ratcliffe, Matthew.  "Phenomenology, Neuroscience, and Intersubjectivity," from A companion to phenomenology and existentialism, eds by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Blackwell 2006). p. 330

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 330

[6] Ratcliffe, Matthew. p.330

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ratcliffe, Matthew, p. 331

[10] Roy, Petitot, Pachoud &Varela, p. xiii

[11] Ratcliffe, Matthew, p.331

[12] Borrett et al, "Bridging embodied cognition and brain function: The role of phenomenology," Philosophical Psychology. June 2000, vol. 13 (2) p. 266.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Borrett et al, "Phenomenology, dynamical neural networks and brain function," Philosophical Psychology, June 2000 vol.13 (2) p.218

[15] Ibid, p.219.

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