by David Brazier

A phenomenon is something as it appears to the mind. In philosophy, since Kant, this term stands in contradistinction to noumenon which indicates the thing in itself. Phenomenology, therefore, is the study of what appears to the mind, of intuition, subjectivity and personal experience. The term "phenomenon" is etymologically related to "fantasy" and "fancy" (Partridge 1990) and also to the Greek word for shining, a phenomenon being something which manifests, shows itself or shines forth.

In psychotherapy, phenomenological approaches are those which seek understanding through inquiry into the subjective and perceptual life of the client and which trust such inwardness to speak for itself. Phenomenology is thus at the opposite pole from behaviourism (Skinner 1971; Hull 1943; Dollard & Miller 1950) and distinct from analytic approaches (eg. Freud, Jung, Berne) which seek to understand by imposing their own schema upon the client's subjectivity.


Robert Solomon (1988) tells us that "Twentieth-century continental philosophy begins with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)." Husserl created phenomenology as a school of thought (Husserl 1931a, 1983). He was a leading influence in the concern with method which became a hallmark of much modern philosophy and subsequently a focus in psychotherapy. His "phenomenological method" and its derivatives have had widespread direct and indirect influence upon recent and contemporary psychotherapy (eg. Binswanger 1975; Boss 1982; Cox & Theilgaard 1987 Frankl 1967; Gendlin 1962; Laing 1961; May 1983; Perls 1969; Rogers 1951) and this influence appears to be growing (Spinelli 1989).

The paradox of Husserl is that we have gained as much from his failure as from his success. As a philosopher he aimed to create a presuppositionless philosophy by a "reduction" or "epoche" or "bracketing" or all received ideas. He hoped to find the essence or "eidos" which are supposedly the fundamental truths of mind, any mind. This was a search for truth through direct introspection of lived experience. In passing we can note that there are some interesting parallels from outside the western tradition in some earlier Buddhist researches and methods (Suzuki,D 1950; Suzuki,S 1970; Conze 1975; Yeshe 1987). Husserl rejected the idea of making psychology scientific by focusing on supposedly objective data, declaring that a different kind of science was needed (Husserl 1925).

Whether he succeeded in his quest for certainties is for philosophers to debate. What concerns us is that he made acceptable, scientific even, a rigorous approach to the investigation of phenomena irrespective of their status in reality. Thus the phenomenological psychotherapist seeks to enter into the frame of reference of the client and appreciate the client's phenomenal world without prejudgement about what contents are real and what false, which significant and which trivial. Husserl put subjectivity back on the map.

The elements of Husserl's approach which still inspire us, therefore, are:

1. The search for understanding via a painstaking investigation of subjectivity;

2. The attempt to enter into such phenomenological investigation free from the distortion of preconceived ideas;

3. His insistence on description ahead of over-hasty explanation and rationalization; and

4. The central emphasis he placed, following his own teacher Brentano (see Brentano 1973), upon intentionality as the basis of all mental experience (Husserl 1931a; 1931b).


Husserl's work inspired his pupil Heidegger and, subsequently, the French existential school around Sartre (Heidegger 1927; Sartre 1943). Sartre's thorough analysis of being for oneself and being for others, together with his compelling life experiences in the resistance during the German occupation, led him to a radical assertion of human freedom, succinctly summarized by Monika Langer:- In Sartre's view "motives, feelings, passions, temperament or character cannot exist as givens in human reality. Contrary to common conceptions, consciousness does not admit of any contents, nor freedom of any attenuation (Langer 1989, p136).

It was, however, Sartre's friend, Maurice Merleau-Ponty who made the contributions which have probably most influenced psychotherapy. Merleau-Ponty's work is in many respects a critique of the alienating consequences of the over-valuation of objectivity. It presents us with the idea of "pre-reflective communication" as a fundamental basis for mutual comprehension and a vision of human relations rooted in a co-operative inter-subjectivity (1962).

For Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology "is largely an expression of surprise at (the) inherence of the self in the world and in others, a description of this paradox and permeation, and an attempt to make us see the bond between subject and world, between subject and others, rather than to explain it" (Merleau-Ponty 1964b, p58).

It was also Merleau-Ponty who pointed out that the most important thing we learn from attempting Husserl's "reduction" is that a complete reduction is not possible (Merleau-Ponty 1962; 1964).

This means that built into every act of perception there is an interpretation. Perception is not a passive receiving of data from the outside world, it is an intentional making sense of the world. There is always a noetic (ie inside the mind) process to be reckoned with. The perceiver does not receive discrete pieces of knowledge and then process them. "The phenomenon is a Gestalt and not 'free' knowledge. Thus the relation to a Gestalt is knowledge of something, but this knowledge of something is self-knowledge: what I see, in these phenomena, are figures of a relation to myself. Consciousness of something is self-consciousness (once it is decoded)." (Merleau-Ponty 1988, p18).

There are several important points here. Firstly, there is the fact of noesis or interpretation built into perception. Thus, I do not know my clients by knowing what has befallen them. Only when I know how each interprets experience do I know them. This idea alone undermines most of what passes for cause and effect in much of psychology.

Secondly, knowledge of the world cannot be separated from knowledge of myself. Heidegger pointed out that our life is a being-in-the-world, a "dasein": "man does not look out upon an external world through windows from the isolation of his ego: he is already out-of-doors. He is in the world because, existing, he is involved in it totally. Existence itself, according to Heidegger, means to stand outside oneself, to be beyond oneself" (Barrett 1961). Therapy or the venture toward psychological wholeness is,then, not a matter of strengthening the ego boundary but of realizing the necessity for perpetually going beyond oneself. Again there are eastern parallels (Billington 1990; Conze 1975; Fu 1976)

Thirdly there is the Gestalt phenomenon (Kohler 1929; Koffka 1935; Rock 1984). Something only exists for us or appears to us as figure in relation to a ground, not as a thing in isolation. Interesting extensions of these ideas are Ihde's work on "apodictic" alternatives and adequacy of perception (Ihde 1977) and Apter's (1989) "reversal theory" - a convincing and novel analysis of the phenomenology of the experience of arousal - which Murgatroyd (1984) has used as the basis of an approach to eclectic psychotherapy.


Carl Rogers acknowledged his indebtedness to phenomenology (Evans 1975) and his approach is in many respects one of its purest applications. His often repeated exhortation that "the facts are friendly" seems to echo Husserl's "to the things themselves". His life long effort to make a science of the investigation of subjective life parallels Husserl. And Husserl's "reduction" finds a clear restatement in Rogers: "To be with another in this (empathic) way means that for the time being you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another's world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside your self" (Rogers 1980, p143).

Rogers' approach has been called Non-directive therapy, Client-Centred Therapy and Person-Centred Approach (Rogers 1942, 1951, 1977). His basic theory rests on the idea of a reliable self-actualizing tendency (cf Maslow) in the individual (Rogers 1951, p487). The hypothesis is that if a defineable set of psychological conditions can be created by the therapist, constructive personality change in the client will occur (Rogers 1957). This hypothesis is generally taken to have six elements, viz. 1. psychological contact, 2. client incongruence, 3. therapist congruence, 4. unconditional positive regard, 5. accurate empathy and 6. achieved communication (Gaylin 1989). The most contentious aspect of Roger's hypothesis is that "No other conditions are necessary" (Gaylin p265).

"The essence of CC/PC therapy is the therapist's dedication to going with the client's direction, at the client's pace, and with the client's unique way of being" (Bozarth 1990 p63). The phenomenological approach seeks "to observe people, not as they seem to outsiders, but as they seem to themselves" (Combs & Snygg 1959). In this approach it is the "lived experience" (Husserl 1925) of the person that matters and there is a radical rejection of mechanistic approaches in favour of a genuinely personal or "I-thou" encounter (Buber 1923; Kirschenbaum & Henderson 1989; Friedman 1986).


I have reviewed some of the key ideas of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Rogers. The type of therapy which their work suggests has the following features:

1. It is a phenomenological investigation eschewing any mechanistic interpretation;

2. The therapist is warmly acceptant and sets aside to a radical degree all private bias and personal agenda;

3. The therapist strives to appreciate the noetic process of the client, allowing the subjective life to speak for itself.

4. Therapist activity consists largely of description of the phenomenal fields accessible to direct observation or intuition during the therapeutic encounter;

5. It is the client rather than the therapist who generates explanations and interpretations;

6. The approach is present and future, rather than past, oriented and pays careful regard to intentionality;

7. A self-actualizing tendency may or may not be posited but in any case understanding is sought in the client's subjective world (Eigenwelt);

8. Therapy proceeds through a personal encounter of the I-thou type.


APTER M. 1989, Reversal Theory, Routledge

BARRETT W. 1961, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, Heinemann

BILLINGTON R. 1990, East of Existentialism, Unwin Hyman

BINSWANGER L. 1975, (translator & editor J. Needleman), Being-in-the-World, Souvenir

BOSS M. 1982, (translator L.B.Lefebre), Psychoanalysis and Daseinanalysis, Da Capo Press New York

BOZARTH J.D. 1990, "The Essence of Client-Centred Therapy". In G.Lietaer et al (Editors), Client-Centred and Experiential Psychotherapy in the Nineties, Leuven Univ Press

BRENTANO F. 1973, (trans RANCURELLO,A. et al) Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

BUBER M. 1923, I and Thou, Scribner New York 1970

COMBS A.W. & SNew YorkGG,D.  1959, Individual Behaviour, Harper & Row

CONZE E. (trans) 1975, The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, University of California Press

COX M. & THEILGAARD,A. 1987, Mutative Metaphores in Psychotherapy, Tavistock

DOLLARD J. & MILLER,N.E. 1950, Personality and Psychotherapy, McGraw Hill

EVANS R.I. 1975, Dialogue with Carl Rogers, Praeger New York 1981

FRANKL V.E. 1967, Psychotherapy and Existentialism, Square Press New York

FRIEDMAN M. 1986, "Carl Rogers and Martin Buber: Self-Actualization and Dialogue", Person-Centred Review, 1, 4, pp409-35

FU C.W. 1976,"Creative Hermeneutics: Taoist Metaphysics and Heidegger", Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 3, pp115-43

GAYLIN N.L. 1989, "The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for Change", Person-Centred Review, 4, 3, pp263-79

GENDLIN E.T. 1962, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Free Press

HEIDEGGER M. 1927, (translators J.Macquarrie & E.Robinson) Being and Time, Harper & Row 1962

HULL C.L. 1943, Principles of Behaviour, Appleton New York

HUSSERL E. 1925, (translator J.Scanlon) Phenomenological Psychology, Martinus Nijhoff, Hague 1977

HUSSERL E. 1931a, Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology, Macmillan New York

HUSSERL E. 1931b, (translator D.Cairns) Cartesian Meditations, Martinus Nijhoff, Hague HUSSERL E. 1983, (translator F.Kersten) Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy, Martinus Nijhoff, Hague

KIRSCHENBAUM H. & HENDERSON V. (Editors), 1989, Carl Rogers Dialogues, Houghton Mifflin

KOFFKA K. 1935, Principles of Gestalt Psychology, New York: Harcourt Brace

KOHLER W. 1929, Gestalt Psychology, New York: Liveright

IHDE D. 1977, Experimental Phenomenology, State University of New York, 1986

LAING R.D. 1961, Self and Others, London: Penguin

LANGER M.M. 1989, Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception: A Guide and Commentary, London: Macmillan

MAY R. 1983, The Discovery of Being, New York: Norton

MURGATROYD S & APTER M. 1984, "Eclectic Psychotherapy: A Structural Phenomenological Approach", in W.Dryden (editor) Individual Therapy in Britain, Milton Keynes: Open University Press

MERLEAU-PONTY M. 1962, (translator C.Smith) The Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

MERLEAU-PONTY M. 1964a, The Primacy of Perception, Chicago: Northwestern University Press

MERLEAU-PONTY M. 1964b, "The Film and the New Psychology". In H.L.& P.A.Dreyfus, (translators), Sense and Non-Sense, Chicago: Northwestern University Press

MERLEAU-PONTY M. 1988, "Philosophy and Non-philosophy Since Hegel," in H.J. Silverman, Philosophy and Non-philosophy Since Merleau-Ponty, London: Routledge

PARTRIDGE E. 1990, Origins, London: Routledge

PERLS F. 1969, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Berkeley: Real People Press

ROCK I. 1984, Perception, New York: Scientific American Books

ROGERS C.R. 1942, Counselling and Psychotherapy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin

ROGERS C.R. 1951, Client Centred Therapy, London: Constable

ROGERS C.R. 1957, "The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change", Journal of Consulting Psychology, 12, pp.95-103

ROGERS C.R. 1977, On Personal Power, London: Constable

ROGERS C.R. 1980, A Way of Being, Boston: Houghton Mifflin

SARTRE J-P, 1943, (translator H.Barnes) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. London: Methuen 1968

SKINNER B.F. 1971, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, New York: Knopf

SOLOMON R.C. 1988, Continental Philosophy since 1750, Oxford University Press.

SPINELLI E. 1989, The Interpreted World, London: Sage

SUZUKI D.T. 1950, Essays in Zen Buddhism, London: Rider

SUZUKI S. 1970, Zen Mind Beginners Mind, London: Weatherhill

YESHE T 1987, Introduction to Tantra, London: Wisdom

D.J. Brazier



If you wish to respond to this paper, please use the Comment Wall

or for longer responses the Discussion Forum

© 2021   Created by David Brazier.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service