#36 Zahavi as referee among some applied phenomenologists duking it out

Literature review continues. I’m still coming to grips which applied phenomenology method to use in our upcoming study. The next set of articles I read were Giorgi & Giorgi (2008) and Zahavi (2019a).

Giorgi & Giorgi (2008) outlined five strands of phenomenology-inspired/related methods used or currently in use in psychology today. The usual suspects come up: Smith’s Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis and van Manen’s applied hermeneutic phenomenology. It was nice to get an historical bird’s eye perspective how phenomenology is used by qualitative researchers, particularly psychologists. Zahavi’s (2019a) paper was equally interesting, a counterweight and highly critical piece, slamming both Smith’s and van Manen’s methods. According to Zahavi, Smith and van Manen had been duking it out in a series of back-and-forth published papers critiquing each other’s method; Smith basically defending his method’s phenomenological status while van Manen criticizing it. Giorgi’s and van Manen’s methods claim that in order for a work to be phenomenological one must employ the epoché and reduction, while Smith’s method doesn’t seem to do so as stringently. The reason I read Zahavi’s (2019a) paper is because I wanted to see a philosophical phenomenology referee in between Smith and van Manen’s fighting and Zahavi’s take on what counts as “phenomenological” considering he’s a hardcore Husserlian.

In another paper, Zahavi (2019b) argues that applied phenomenologists and qualitative researchers incorporating phenomenological aspects might do well to ignore the epoché and reduction altogether, that it’s not necessary to get at the “how and as what worldly objects are given to us.” Further, he says: “Rather than trying to adhere to Husserl’s, Merleau-Ponty’s, or Heidegger’s recommendations regarding how to apply phenomenology, let alone seeking to adopt their philosophical method, qualitative researchers should rather strive to let their own research be informed by central phenomenological concepts such as lifeworld, intentionality, empathy, pre-reflective experience, horizon, historicity, and the lived body” (Zahavi, 2019b, 6). It seems to me there is a difference between having a solid phenomenological stance or question or approach that the phenomenologist has which informs all further sub-questions, queries, and analyses, of which further lifeworld examples are mere means to get at the how we experience a particular phenomenon, and, using phenomenological concepts (e.g. lifeworld, empathy, embodiment, etc.) in a qualitative research. According to Zahavi (2019b), it would be better for these non-phenomenologists to ignore the epoché and reduction and focus instead on core phenomenological concepts, which could better inform the overall point of their research.

Another of Zahavi’s “beefs” with applied phenomenology and phenomenological psychology is that these schools might lose sight of or confound the purpose of the epoché and reduction. According to Zahavi (2019a, 4), “To avoid simply presupposing the validity of realism, we need to suspend our acceptance of the natural attitude. We keep the attitude (to investigate it), but we bracket its validity. The purpose of the epoché is not to doubt, ignore, neglect, abandon, or exclude reality from our research but to suspend or neutralize a certain dogmatic attitude toward reality” (Zahavi, 2019a, 4). This seems to be impossible with phenomenological psychology applications because they do research squarely within and from the human perspective, which is not at all aligned with Husserl’s transcendental project of studying (the non-human element of) consciousness. It seems that many people, including myself at times, interpret the epoché as bracketing everything we know about the world before we return to the things themselves, but Zahavi reminds us that that which we bracket is the natural attitude’s taken-for-granted validity that there is such a thing as a mind-independent world and that science and quantitative methods can explain everything about our reality (i.e. scientism).

My impression of phenomenology is that it’s a bit like quantum mechanics: no one truly understands it perfectly and thus anybody’s (educated) guess is as good as anyone else’s. One can fashion phenomenology or carve out a particular foundational angle upon which to build (e.g. Heidegger: Dasein, ontology; Merleau-Ponty: embodiment, perception; Schutz: social embeddedness; Levinas: the Other). What is important, and Zahavi (2019a, 5) stresses this, is that if you want to promote anything as “phenomenological,” at least read up on the classic texts and the supplementary texts (lectures, notes, once unpublished material but now published) to have an idea, a foundation, upon which you’re trying to build. If I remember correctly, van Manen also stresses this in his books. One must know the tradition they’re speaking of, using, and likely contributing to. As for my part, I admit that I’m not an applied or philosophical phenomenologist, I don’t even have a PhD, but that won’t stop me from reading up on major phenomenological works from thinkers which I intend to understand and build upon in my own pursuits in understanding the psychedelic/iboga experience. Previous phenomenologists gave order to something or saw something that us ordinary folk had not (yet). And this ordering or sense-making—not in an interpretive way, but in an understanding of the how, the structural features of consciousness, i.e. givenness of phenomena, kind of way—are the first steps or the intermediary steps in developing a phenomenology depending on whatever your grand question or single thought is. But what is your “one thought” that you think? as Heidegger would ask. By understanding your foundation, you understand whether you’re more into Husserl’s transcendental project, Heidegger’s ontological/existential project, Merleau-Ponty’s embodied/perceptual project, and so forth. And it is here that the journey begins for anyone who wants to know and use phenomenology in their own research and experiential sense-making. What’s your question? What are you trying to get at? Who’s ideas came before you that can help with your journey, and what have you thought of that they did not consider because of temporal or developing niche topic considerations? I’m fascinated by phenomenology and many of its thinkers who contributed some piece to this very much alive puzzle in which we find ourselves. With that said, I won’t know every argument, every nuance, every debate within phenomenology. What I will do is read who I want, who is relevant to my questions, and I’ll do the best of my ability to bring order, to intellectualize the mystery before me that is iboga. And I will get things wrong; that’s ok. I will get things wrong on this blog and people will critique me; and that’s ok. Teach me; I’m here to learn. By reading this blog and my forthcoming articles and books, I am in “the process,” and my thinking and articulation of very abstract topics will stabilize and concretize eventually. Until that day comes, you and me are in for some ride because I’m not going away any time soon.

Giorgi, A. P., & Giorgi, B. (2008). Phenomenological Psychology. In C. Willig & W. Stainton-Rogers (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology, (165-178). SAGE Publications.

Zahavi, D. (2019a). Getting It Quite Wrong: Van Manen and Smith on Phenomenology. Qualitative Health Research, 29(6), 900-907.

Zahavi, D. (2019b). Applied phenomenology: why it is safe to ignore the epoché. Continental Philosophy Review, 1-15.

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