Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science
David Woodruff Smith
Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, California 92697-4555
Keywords:†††††† phenomenology, consciousness, intentionality, philosophy of mind, first-person
Contents:††††††† What is phenomenology
††††††††††††††††††††††† Phenomenology as a philosophical program
††††††††††††††††††††††† Phenomenology as an empirical research program
††††††††††††††††††††††† The role of phenomenology in cognitive science
Definition:†††††† Phenomenology is the study of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Focussing the philosophical theory of mind on intentionality, or mental representation, it lays a foundation for empirical studies of mind in cognitive science.
Introduction:†† The theory of mind developed in philosophy from Plato and Aristotle through Descartes, Locke, and Kant to Brentano and James. Around 1900, drawing crucial distinctions among ideas and their objects, Husserl put together the basic theory of intentionality that is central to phenomenology. The computational model of mind emerged with cognitive science in the 1970’s, and consciousness returned to central stage in the 1990’s. To contemporary cognitive science, phenomenology contributes a developed analysis of conscious intentional experience.
1.†††††††† What is Phenomenology
††††††††††† Phenomenology is the study of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. Its domain of study is the entire field of conscious experience: including perception, imagination, thought, reasoning, desire, emotion, volition and embodied action, as well as temporal awareness, awareness of self and personal identity, awareness of others, and practical and social activity. Its focus is on the structure of conscious mental states, or experiences, especially intentionality, that is, the way in which mental states represent or are directed toward various things. (Alternative characterizations of phenomenology are noted below.)
††††††††††† So defined, phenomenology is a discipline: the study of consciousness. Its methodology will be addressed below. There has been controversy as to whether phenomenology should proceed by some form of inner reflection or introspection; or by a more artful form of interpretation of experience akin to textual interpetation; or by an analytic method more like that of logic or linguistics or mathematics; or by some variation on the empirical scientific method of observation, hypothesis, and theory confirmation.
††††††††††† As a program in philosophy, phenomenology would ground or center all philosophy in our own lived experience. As an empirical research program, phenomenology would focus on structures of consciousness as we experience them. The latter program of research cuts across parts of cognitive science.
††††††††††† Plato spoke of the psyche (soul, mind) and the forms or ideas (eidos) of things. Then Aristotle proposed that in perception the psyche takes in the form but not the matter of the object perceived. In the Middle Ages Arabic philosophers distinguished form-in-mind from form-in-object, and then the neo-Aristotelian Scholastic philosophers of the 14th century dubbed the form-in-mind “intentio”: the mental content that “aims” at an object.
††††††††††† In the 17th century Descartes sharply advanced the conception of mind: first, he held, the mind can be known with a kind of certainty while all else is cast into methodological doubt (“I think, therefore I am”); second, he held, mind and body are distinct in kind, as a body is extended in space (and time) while a mental state is not. In the 18th century Locke, Hume, and Kant further stressed the radically different characters of mind and nature. In the same era Newton’s physics laid down mathematical laws of motion, while Locke focussed philosophy on the structure of our “ideas” and so on† consciousness and the “self-consciousness” that, for Locke, distinguishes our conscious mental states. Locke also stressed principles of continuity over time that constitute our personal identity. Hume, however, cast doubt on our pretensions to knowledge of the existence of the external world. Kant then distinguished “phenomena”, or things-as-they-appear, from “noumena”, or things-in-themselves, holding that our representations of things were all we could know of things.
††††††††††† In the 19th century, on the heels of these lines of argument, the foundations of phenomenology were laid. First Bernard Bolzano distinguished between subjective ideas (experiences) and objective ideas, including the timeless propositions long studied by logicians. Then Franz Brentano revived the Medieval notion of “intentio”: what distinguishes mental from physical phenomena, according to Brentano, is the way in which mental acts are “directed” toward objects.
††††††††††† By 1900 Edmund Husserl synthesized these lines of theory — from logic, epistemology, psychology, and ontology — into the discipline he called “phenomenology” (Husserl 1900-01, 1912-13). The term ‘phenomenology’ had been used loosely since the 17th century, roughly defined as the description of “phenomena”, or appearances, especially sensible qualities of things. Husserl then defined phenomenology as the science of the essence of consciousness.
††††††††††† The leading thesis of phenomenology, according to Husserl, is that consciousness is always consciousness-of-something. That is, every act of consciousness is “intentional” (Husserl’s idiom), or directed toward some object. Alternatively, consciousness represents things in the world. Since the 1970s cognitive science has stressed the empirical study of mental representation, what Husserl called intentionality. Husserl’s great achievement was to analyze the structure of intentionality in general and then to pursue specific forms of intentionality in different forms of experience: in perception, imagination, action, speech, temporal awareness, and intersubjective awareness of other persons. Husserl, for the first time, clearly drew the necessary distinctions among subject, act, content, and object of consciousness — though these notions had been developing since Plato and Aristotle. Husserl’s account of intentionality, however, was not itself committed to the problematic ontologies of dualism, idealism, or reductive materialism that have dominated philosophy since the 17th century — or to the problematic distinction between phenomena and “things-in-themselves” that dominated Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy in the 18th and 19th centuries.
††††††††††† Husserl’s work in phenomenology was followed by now-classical writings of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Jean-Paul Sartre, often elaborating psychological and social aspects of human existence. Heidegger (1927, 1928) stressed the “being” of human beings in our intentional-practical-cultural activities, downplaying consciousness in favor of our modes of being. Merleau-Ponty (1945) brought home the role of bodily experience in perception and other forms of human experience. Sartre (1943) stressed our experience of freedom of will and again our being in the world with others. His account of the “look” of “the other” led through Simone de Beauvoir to the social-political account of women and minorities being treated and conceived as “other”.
††††††††††† Through the first half of the 20th century, phenomenologists argued over what is most fundamental in forming intentionality (consciousness or language or social practice), over what is most fundamental in being (the individual self, the act of consciousness, the body or embodied intentional act, the background culture or “they”), and always over method. Husserl proposed a method of “bracketing” the object of consciousness in order to focus on the form or content of one’s experience, thus describing the object only as it is experienced. Some phenomenologists have pursued this “transcendental attitude” in a way that resembles Zen meditation, observing the world as we experience it without judgment about the “natural world” (compare Sokolowski 1999). Heidegger practiced a “hermeneutic” method of interpreting modes of intentional activity within the context of being-with-others; Merleau-Ponty pursued the description of experience within the context of embodied activity, as even vision is seeing with and by the use of one’s body. Phenomenological analyses often led beyond the saliently conscious elements of our experience and into more habitual activities and the background cultural practices that give meaning to our activities. In this way phenomenology spread beyond its initial domain of the obviously conscious side of our intentional activities.
††††††††††† All the preceding work in phenomenology was part of the so-called continental tradition in German and French philosophy, though launched by the more analytic work of Bolzano, Brentano, and Husserl in the Austrian tradition that also produced the positivism of the Vienna Circle in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Meanwhile, a different philosophy of mind set in strongly in England and then America, developing behaviorism, materialism, and functionalism. Around 1950 logical behaviorism flowered, inspired by Wittgenstein and Ryle. Ryle had read Husserl and Heidegger sympathetically, but Ryle rejected the Cartesian view that our knowledge of our own mental states is incorrigible, and he proposed that our language about mental states is logically committed to ascriptions of dispositions to overt behavior. Then materialism (mind is brain) was revived in the 1950’s and 1960’s, followed by functionalism (mind is neural or computational function), leading into the emergence of cognitive science in the 1970’s. In these third-person accounts of mind, phenomenology held at best an uneasy place, as we see finally in Dennett (1991), where first-person “autophenomenology” is rejected in favor of third-person “heterophenomenology”, an analysis of consciousness prompted by neuroscience, which Dennett claims rejects a Cartesian “theater” where mental events take place in full view of the experiencing subject.
††††††††††† In the 1970’s, however, Dagfinn FŅllesdal and others (Dreyfus, 1982, Smith and McIntyre, 1982) stressed the connection between Husserlian phenomenology and modern logical theory. FŅllesdal (1969) realigned the theory of intentionality with the theory of reference (and truth) in logical-semantic theory and philosophy of language.
††††††††††† As cognitive science grew, John Searle (1983, 1992) re-articulated the structure of intentionality. Searle’s work was not explicitly phenomenological, but he stressed the first-person ontology of mind, arguing for the irreducibly subjective character of intentionality and consciousness — even though, for Searle, the world remains basically physical, humans basically biological, and the subjective character of mind a natural, biological phenomenon.
††††††††††† As philosophy of mind developed through the 1980’s, consciousness returned to center stage. The behaviorist era had banished consciousness, introspection, and the fruits of phenomenology. Then Nagel (1974) argued that an objective account of the world would necessarily omit the subjective character of mental states, “what it is like” to experience these states. Gradually, the first-person perspective regained ground. As the boom in consciousness studies arrived in the 1990’s, Chalmers (1996) surveyed the state of the art and declared consciousness — the subjective, first-personal phenomenon — the “hard” problem for our scientific theory of mind.
††††††††††† Phenomenology by any other name has returned to the philosophy and science of mind.
3.†††††††† Phenomenology as a philosophical program
††††††††††† Phenomenology was not promoted only as an autonomous discipline designed to study consciousnes for its own sake. For Husserl, Heidegger, and the other classical phenomenologists, all of philosophy was a stake. Descartes had revolutionized philosophy by turning Aristotelian thought toward pure reason in the light of our own conscious thought. Locke and the empiricists had pursued philosophy through the new “way of ideas”, founding epistemology on sense experience rather than reason. Kant’s “critical” or “transcendental” philosophy had sought to synthesize rationalism and empiricism, while avoiding the traditional realism/idealism debate by placing all that is knowable within the range of “phenomena”. Husserl’s phenomenology was then designed to approach the panoply of traditional philosophical issues by developing a clear method for studying consciousness and thus knowledge in an objective, scientific way. More dispassionately, phenomenology may today be seen to contribute systematically to philosophy in light of the careful analysis of intentionality that is central to phenomenology. For intentionality cuts across philosophy of mind, language, logic, knowledge, reality, and ethical evaluations of right and wrong action.
††††††††††† The relation between ourselves, our consciousness, and the rest of the world remains a crucial part of all philosophy. That relation is called intentionality. According to the phenomenological analysis of intentionality, consciousness consists in a relation among a subject, an act, a content, and an object. The subject is the person or “I” who experiences the consciousness; the act is the unit of conscious exsperience; the content is the image/concept/thought entertained by the subject in experiencing the act; and the object is that which is represented or “intended” in the act by the content. The overall structure is thus one of representation: consciousness consists in a mental representation of an object by a content in an act of a subject. The structure of intentionality is thus:
††††††††††††††††††††††† SUBJECT — ACT —— CONTENT ———> OBJECT .
Let us spell out these notions of content, etc., in more detail.
††††††††††† Consciousness occurs in units of mental activity called “acts” (events, states, or processes). Acts of consciousness include particular acts of perception, imagination, thought, desire, will, etc. Every act of consciousness has a subject, a self or “I” (ego in Latin): the person who has, experiences, or performs the act. Thus, as we say in everyday language, I see or think or will such-and-such. Every act also has a putative object: what I see or think (about) or will. I see a dog or a tree or an automobile: that object, and no other, is the object of my act of consciousness in so seeing. As so far analyzed, then, consciousness has the form of a relation between an act (of a subject) and an object. But this intentional relation is unusual, because in some cases the putative object — the object projected by the act — does not exist. When I see (or seem to see) a snake in the corner, when there is no such thing present, then my visual experience really has no object; alternatively, its object does not exist. (In one rather unpopular ontology, there is such an object but it lacks existence.)
††††††††††† How do sensations, such as seeing red or feeling pain, fit into the act-object model? The British empiricists isolated pure sensations, and 20th century empiricists (such as A. J. Ayer) took sensations either to have special objects called sense data (one sees a patch of red, rather than a tomato) or to have no object at all (one sees “redly”, an experience that is not intentional). Against the strict empiricists, however, Husserl, like Kant, took perception to be a fusion of sensation and conception (one sees, with a visual sensory quality, a red tomato). Recent discussions of sensory “qualia” have focussed on this quality of sensation, as distinguished from the property of intentionality in perception.
††††††††††† Different acts of consciousness may represent — “present” or “intend” — the same object in different ways. In a well-worn example, consider my two experiences wherein at dusk I see the evening star and then at dawn I see the morning star. The same object, Venus, is presented in my first experience as “the evening star” and then in my second experience as “the morning star”. Accordingly, we must distinguish the content from the object of my experience. The content includes the way the object is represented, while the object itself is what is represented. Alternatively, the content is my concept/image/percept of the object. The content of an act is sometimes called the “meaning” of the act (or of the object for the subject in the act). Since different acts (in different times and places, or in different subjects) may share the same content, philosophers say the content is an abstract or ideal entity: something which itself does not have a location in spacetime.
††††††††††† Of course, the same person or “I” may have different experiences, or acts of consciousness.
And different acts may have the same or different contents. Further, different contents may represent the same or different objects. Thus, we must distinguish within the structure of intentionality the roles of subject, act, content, and object. Intentionality consists in the relation of representation that obtains among the relevant subject, act, content, and object.
††††††††††† No theory of intentionality, or mental representation, can be adequate unless it draws these distinctions and relates these types of entities in this way.
††††††††††† However, at this stage of analysis, there is room to specify further the ontology of the entities that play these distinct roles of subject, act, content, and object. Classical choices among realism, idealism, materialism, etc., would have to proceed from here. The program of phenomenological philosophy could thus be pursued within the further assumptions of physicalism, idealism, cultural historicism, etc. One such program (Husserl’s, under one interpretation) places phenomenology within a transcendental idealism like Kant’s; another (Heidegger’s, under one interpretation) pursues phenomenology within a philosophy of cultural practices or also language games (pace Wittgenstein). Still another program suspends all metaphysical concerns and practices phenomenology within a reflective way of life — akin perhaps to Buddhist traditions.
††††††††††† In a different dimension phenomenological philosophy might relate the structure of intentionality to issues in the foundations of logic, mathematics, and science. Husserl himself (in his 1900-01) developed phenomenology with these concerns in mind.
††††††††††† Finally, ethical and political philosophy may be pursued with phenomenological analyses of relations between self and other. Sartre’s work and its progeny follow this program.
4.†††††††† Phenomenology as an empirical research program
††††††††††† How should we study the essence of consciousness from a first-person perspective? What methodology should phenomenology use? We all experience many states of consciousness and know how to express or articulate them: these methods are built into everyday language, with the psychological verbs, when we say, “I see/hear/think ...” Yet a scientific formulation of phenomenological method has seemed elusive. Scientific method is regularly taught to students of physics, chemistry, and biology, but phenomenological method is not regularly taught and still seems unfamiliar, especially to scientists.
††††††††††† On the one hand, phenomenology is thoroughly empirical in that it proceeds by observation of our own conscious experiences: by introspection or reflection as we live experience. Yet how do we observe our own experiences? Not by eyesight, nor by touching or hearing our experiences. The standard empirical method of noting what we see and hear and touch around us is not the method of observation in phenomenology. Yet observe we do: we all know what it is like to experience familiar forms of consciousness.
††††††††††† On the other hand, phenomenology is highly analytic, like logic or linguistics, in that phenomenology analyzes familiar forms of consciousness, somewhat as logic analyzes familiar forms of argument or linguistics analyzes familiar forms of speech.
††††††††††† How should phenomenological analysis proceed? Most relevant to cognitive science are three different methods used in the practice of phenomenology to date. Broadly, these techniques are: (1) to focus on your own consciousness by “bracketing” its object; (2) to interpret your experience in terms of its practical context; and (3) to analyze the “meaning” or form of your consciousnes as an instance of a familiar structure (like logical or linguistic structure in your mother tongue).
††††††††††† 1. The method of bracketing (used in Husserl 1913): Bracket the object of your consciousness, that is, put aside the question of whether the object exists and of what it is really like in itself. Thereby focus on your consciousness-of-the object: the way the object is given/represented/intended in your experience. For example, as I see that sheep in the field, I put aside whether it is really there and what it really is (whether a sheep, etc.). Now I can describe my visual experience: “I see that sheep across the fence, a white sheep with black face (as I’ve seen many times before).” This method of bracketing presupposes that we have the ability to focus on our own conscious experiences.
††††††††††† 2. The method of interpretation (used in Heidegger 1927b as “hermeneutics” and in Merleau-Ponty 1945 as contextual “description”): Reflect on a particular intentional activity, and interpret its meaning by placing it in its everyday context of significance. For example, as I pick up this hammer and strike this nail, I reflect on the familiar things I encounter and assume while hammering a nail. Thus, I reflect: I am not merely performing the intentional action of hammering the nail; I am engaged in using the hammer to drive in the nail, but not actively thinking about this, or about my hammering style, while I am building a cabinet in my kitchen and selecting tools from my tool chest, etc. Moreover, I am using my body, engaged in bodily action in hammering, with kinesthetic awareness of what I am doing. This method of interpretation presupposes that we live in the world as embodied, with objects around us, with other people in our community, with extant practices of how we move and act and think and speak.
††††††††††† 3. The method of analysis (used in Smith and McIntyre 1982 with an eye to logical or semantic analysis): Reflect on a particular form of experience you are having (or have recently had), and specify the structure or content of the experience by analyzing this familiar form of experience, somewhat as you may analyze the meaning of a sentence familiar in your own language. This method of analysis presupposes that we have a repertoire of familiar experiences and can reflect on their structure which we know tacitly from present and prior experience. This takes practice, as in logic or linguistics. However, the content of an experience is not usually a linguistic meaning, what philosophers call a “proposition”; it is usually instead a visual or imaginary image, a concept for which we have no words, or a precept for action for which we have no words (how do you describe the complex but familiar movement you make as you pick up a hammer and nail and drive it into a piece of wood while balancing yourself?).
††††††††††† It should be clear that these three techniques are not contradictory (even though phenomenologists have waged intellectual wars over these methods and their proclaimed assumptions of idealism, dualism, historicism, etc.). In fact, contemporary phenomenological method might prescribe these three steps in sequence: as a new scientific method for studying consciousness in an empirical way from the first-person perspective. As we move from introspection into contextual interpretation and then into the “semantics” of experience, we move from observation into theory. The “logic” of consciousness is the mathematics of phenomenology, as it were. We then begin to construct, as in any science, the best account or theory of the objects of study: conscious intentional experiences as we know them in our own consciousness. Our unfolding theory will be tested and confirmed or disconfirmed by evaluating particular claims about the structure of consciousness and how these fit in with our own experience and our developing theory thereof.
††††††††††† In this way phenomenology yields an empirical research program ready to interact with cognitive science. It should be noted that phenomenology can also lead into rather different kinds of reflection, as in literary or cultural criticism, with aims different from those of science per se.
5.†††††††† The role of phenomenology in cognitive science
††††††††††† Cognitive science brings the methodology of empirical science (from physics to neuroscience) into the study of mind, long the province of philosophy. The term ‘cognitive science’ took root in the 1970’s in an explicit effort to synthesize the disciplines of psychology, philosophy (of mind), computer science (artificial intelligence), and ultimately neuroscience. The computational model of mind has been a driving force in cognitive science, as algorithms offer a mathematical model of certain aspects of mental function. Yet there has been a growing acknowledgement that the problems of consciousness — including qualia, intentionality, and conscious awareness — are not addressed by the computational model, or by any functionalist or reductive physicalist models of the mind.
††††††††††† These problems are the proper domain of phenomenology, which has ably analyzed many structures of consciousness. Indeed, our understanding of mind begins with our own subjective experience, and phenomenology systematically analyzes our lived conscious experience. Hypotheses of computational or neural function, and experiments designed to confirm such hypotheses, are a further matter. Where cognitive neuroscience seeks to explain how certain patterns of neural activity (implementing certain algorithms) are involved in certain forms of perception, thought, emotion, etc., the phenomenology of these forms of experience is presupposed (though hardly explicit). It need not be assumed, with Descartes, that we know our own conscious minds with absolute certainty, but only that we experience familiar forms of consciousness, further aspects of which are under investigation in neuroscience.
††††††††††† In practice phenomenology cuts across cognitive science: especially in analyses of mental representation or intentionality, as in visual perception. In theory, moreover, phenomenology should be seen as properly intersecting cognitive science. Thus, where phenomenology appraises conscious mental states or processes and their character as experienced from the first-person perspective, other parts of cognitive science proceed from a third-person perspective, appraising non-experiential and unexperienced aspects of mental states.
††††††††††† Phenomenology and experimental cognitive science interact dramatically in the analysis of blindsight. Our overall theory of mind addresses vision, and phenomenology analyzes familiar cases of conscious visual perception. Then experiments discover the unfamiliar cases of “blind” sight, or unconscious visual perception, where the subject answers correctly questions about what is before her eyes but insists that she has no awareness of seeing anything at all. These contrasting accounts of conscious and blind sight help to factor out of the known structure of perception two important but distinct aspects: intentionality and conscious awareness. For it is one thing to see (to have a perception of) such-and-such, to take in information visually, and it is something further to be aware of seeing such-and-such, to consciously see. It is the task of phenomenology to describe and analyze conscious awareness, which is presupposed then in a cognitive theory of blind sight.
††††††††††† But there is a further way in which experimental cognitive science may interact with phenomenology. Features of conscious experience analyzed in phenomenology may be confirmed and in some ways sharpened by results in neuroscience. For instance, what makes a mental state conscious, many philosophers have held, is a kind of awareness the subject has of the state: perhaps in a form of higher-order monitoring of the state. If neuroscience can find a distinctive activity in a certain part of the brain that is operative only when a person is consciously experiencing a given mental state, say, in conscious as opposed to blind sight, then the phenomenological analysis of this form of awareness will be confirmed.
††††††††††† In these ways phenomenology and cognitive science intersect in content but complement and supplement one another in method. Nonetheless, there have been sharp controversies between the two disciplines, concerning both theory and method. As noted, a lot of work in cognitive science assumes the computational theory of mind. Yet many or most phenomenologists reject the computational model (and functionalism), concurring with arguments by Searle (1984) and Dreyfus (1979) that intentional content or meaning does not align with input-output rules of computation, as well as arguments by Chalmers (1995) that the properties of consciousness are not captured by physicalist or functionalist reduction. (Compare the many discussions in Petitot et al. 1999.) So long as it is assumed that mind is identical with computation, or with neural function (effecting connectionist computation), the phenomenological methods of first-person reflection (cum interpretation and analysis) will seem off-base. However, if it is assumed instead that phenomenological properties of mental states supervene on neural properties of the brain (pace Kim 1998), then the methods of phenomenology will be seen as appropriate for the study of experienced structures of mental activity. And in that case phenomenology will take a proper place in relation to cognitive science.
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Intentionality The directedness of consciousness toward an object, an act’s being of or about or ††††††† representing something.
Act The unit of conscious experience, e.g., a perception, thought, or desire.
Subject The person or “I” having a conscious experience.
Content The meaning the object has for the subject in an act of consciousness, the †††††† concept/image/percept/proposition which is entertained in the act and which represents ††††††† the object of the act in a certain way.
Object of consciousness That of which the subject is conscious in an act.
Phenomenology The study of consciousness, literally of “phenomena” or the ways things appear to †† us in our experience.
Philosophy of mind. Functionalism. Materialism. Consciousness. Intentionality. Content. Perceptionh. Blindsight. Higher-order monitoring.
When teaching, I regularly use a graphic version of the cartoon format: a picture of a person, the bubble above his or her head, with pictures or words in the bubble expressing the content of the person’s mental state, then an arrow reaching out from the bubble to an object or situation that is represented by the content in the bubble. This graphic captures the basic model of mind spelled out, in theoretical detail, by phenomenology, under the assumption that that the person is aware of what he or she is thinking or experiencing in a state of consciousness.
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