Friday 2 September 2011

Phenomenology at the INPP

It seems to me that one of the repeated topics of the INPP conferences is phenomenology and its application to psychiatry. Sometimes it is not the direct topic, which may be, instead, the nature of the person, conceived of as the primary subject matter for psychiatry. (In so saying one is denying, I take it, that sub-personal states such as disease states are the subject. Though what that in turn amounts to needs – in each context – some unpacking.) But, to return, in this latter context, phenomenology swiftly returns as what a concentration on the person as the proper focus for psychiatry also requires. If we are to think of the person as the proper focus then we had better embrace phenomenology. Well that, at least, has been a claim I have often heard at INPP sessions in the past.

(The contrast I have in mind is something like this. At a session on the nature of psychiatric taxonomy I do not expect to hear much about the way in which we might reason about it: what methods and tools we might use to frame an analysis. I expect, instead, just the – contested – analysis.)

So it was interesting to hear after the opening talk at this year’s conference by David Woodruff Smith, which articulated both a conception of phenomenology and how empathy might be both its method and its topic or subject matter (though I must admit to not getting much of  a feel, in a short presentation, for what his conception of empathy was: an ability to grasp the nature of other people’s mental states and experiences or a particular experiential route to that) a question from Derek Bolton. If one does not assume a Kantian framework governing a priori constraints on how minds experience the world; and if one does not simply follow empirical scientific results; what standards of correctness, what particular routes of inquiry, underpin phenomenology?

If my notes are at all reliable, the answer started with the fact that Husserl himself had had a pre-Kantian phase whilst still using a phenomenological method and so Kantianism can’t be necessary. The approach should be ‘plainly’ phenomenological and thus does not need such a high level construction (as Kantianism, I inferred). Still experience is structured by interpretation and just as one has no need of empirical tests to test linguistic theories (eg about subject and verb order) so one can appeal to our pre-empirical grasp of a kind of basic mental vocabulary to ground the interpretation of experience.

I fear this does not do justice to Peter's answer. But it does leave the question: what is this low-level, non-hifalutin, non-Kantian structure on the assumption that the appeal to language was merely a metaphor. What is left to be the grammar of experience? I seem to have blind-spot every year to this issue: to what the short answer should be.

(Of course, the question of how philosophy ever works remains a problem pretty much in every approach. How can it be both distinct from empirical inquiry and yet purport to tell is anything about the world? With the death of conceptual analysis it is not as though phenomenology's rival approaches have much better answers. But this is less evident at INPP conferences because philosophy as such is rarely the topic of inquiry outside the repeated focus on phenomenology.)